All posts by Gary Lawrence

Let’s Talk About…Late Penalties

Some instructors I know are almost indignant: At a college level, an assignment is due when the assignment is due: “There’s no tolerance for late projects in the real world,” they crow.  Other instructors I know are at the opposite end of the spectrum: They allow students to hang on for a whole semester with minimal effort, and often end up paying the price themselves at the end of the semester by grading an avalanche of last-minute, hastily-thrown-together late assignments in weak attempts to save doomed grades.

You know that old adage: “No good deed goes unpunished?”  It sometimes applies here.

I think either extreme on late penalty policies, too hard or too soft, is problematic in a community college setting.  Having or enforcing no expectations for “on time work” isn’t disciplined enough, and in many ways penalizes those who turn their work in on time (why should they?).  Having a policy that is too strict and punitive can destroy a handful of beginning students prematurely:  Does that harsh of a penalty really fit the “crime”?

Regardless of what you do for late penalties (and everyone should have and apply a stated policy from the opening day of class), document your guidelines in the syllabus, let everyone know ahead of time, and be fair in the application of the rules.

I’ve come up with a late penalty system that I think hits middle ground and is effective for community college learners. Here are the main features of my late policy:

  • If an assignment is late per the web time stamp or other, the penalty is 20% off the point value per calendar day (even if you don’t use Canvas for a full online class, you can still use it for assignment submittals – and you won’t have to carry around all that paper, either).
  • Any assignment not handed in within five days of the deadline gets a zero.
  • Any student that has three “zeros” is in danger of being dropped (note I didn’t say “will be” – there are a few exceptions — see below).

Some exceptions:

  • Extra credit, because it is by definition “extra,” must be handed in on time, and cannot be handed in late.
  • If a student has an extended illness or a planned medical procedure or a severe accident, I will consider an extension if they let me know before the assignment due date.
  • Some assignments, like MGH Connect, are graded on participation and effort (in the case of Connect, by completion percentage). Here I grade at 25% completion and four-week intervals, and allow late submissions, but not for credit. Students must make the completion percentages on time to get participation credits. (With Connect, they cannot go forward without completing all previous exercises).
  • Drafts are key assignments in the writing process – they represent a significant milestone, and I typically need to assign peer reviewers to drafts as soon as possible to give reviewers as much time as possible. Therefore, late drafts are accepted, but the penalty is more severe and the time is shorter: 50% off the point value IF the draft is handed in within 48 hours of the original due date – and, the student does NOT get to participate in peer reviews for credit.

To me these very practical late penalty measures represent a good balance between the discipline needed by students in their first couple years of college (where part of the learning is learning how to be a student), and the realities of (college student) life:

  • They tell the student that they are accountable for their assignments.
  • They tell the student that they are responsible for their overall grade.
  • They distinguish between the important and the most-important assignments (not every thing in life is equally important, either).
  • They are fair in the sense that (1) the policies are the same for everyone, (2) there are exceptions for extreme conditions, and (3) the penalty is based on a percent of the point value of the assignment (in short, equitable).
  • They reward on-time delivery by the more mature/exceptional students.
  • They virtually eliminate the grey and often emotional areas we all run into: Is an assignment late if it is 30 minutes late? Is it late if I was sick? If my mother died? If my dog ate my homework? Yes to all.
  • They provide hope for the students that, as human beings, forget an assignment due date once in awhile – they are not destroyed by one or two late assignments, and can recover with a quick response and hard work.

State and apply a late assignment penalty system that is fair and equitable and fits the situation. Your students’ lives (and yours!) will be better for it.


Let’s Talk Evaluations…Self-Evaluations, That Is

I am an adjunct English instructor, so during any given semester, I am grading all the time.  My friends and family tease me about this often.  I usually shoot back at them with one of two retorts: “Quiet! I’m trying to go fast enough here to make $2 an hour!” Or, more often: “I haven’t found a way yet to teach people how to write better with a multiple choice test – until I do, I’m stuck grading papers!”

Much research has been conducted and much has been written and argued about evaluations – I won’t go into all that here, but the takeaway to me is that good evaluation of what actually needs to be learned and incorporated into the student’s “tool box” is very hard to do right or well.

Most “tests” and even essays simply don’t cut it.

So in my classes, I incorporate what I call a “Lessons Learned” essay at the end of each module.  I don’t call it a “self-evaluation,” or students probably wouldn’t do it.  But that is exactly what it is: A “reflection” essay on what the students learned about the writing process and/or about themselves in the last module we just spent several weeks of their lives on. In short, students review what they did to produce their latest final paper or project, ask themselves what worked for them and what didn’t, and then tell me whether or not they were “successful”– and support their answer.

In good essay form, of course.

I don’t limit the content (say, to peer review or prewriting or outlining or any other step) because, how do I know what they learned?  This keeps the evaluation open-ended and lets the students be “response-able,” i.e. able to respond to their fullest extent possible.

This is a sneaky way, perhaps, to get students to become critical thinkers, to turn their thoughts inward, to analyze what they did, to place some value on their actions, to decide which are important enough to include in a paper, and to present their ideas in a proven and tightly-controlled manner.

It works better than any test I could come up with, and it is more often than not very gratifying to watch them grow.

In addition to the “Lessons Learned” essay for each module, I also require a “Lessons Learned” essay for the course.   I assign a final exam from students using the same method as the “Lessons Learned” assignments for each module – the final requires more words (500 versus 250 minimum) and covers a longer time span (the length of the course versus module).  The final essay is again an open-topic essay, and students can use their books and/or any previous “Lessons Learned” essays they want.  Once more, students must take themselves through the process of brainstorming, listing, analyzing, choosing and prioritizing points to present in their essays.  And present them in good essay form.

In preparation for this final essay, I have students write their own “My Writing Process Today” essay in the first week or two of class, where they present (as honestly and openly as they can) the steps they go through when they are given an essay assignment – one that often entails panic, stress, tobacco products and junk food, but one that sometimes also includes  music and sharing with family and friends and otherwise getting themselves into a “good spot” to write.

Almost everybody at that point talks about procrastinating and doing the final work the day the assignment is due (tendencies we work to eliminate throughout the course).  Their final essays are often a comparison of their individual process in weeks 1-2 with their process in weeks 16-17.  They talk about such things as prewriting, outlining (who knew?!?!), peer reviews, and growing confidence in themselves as writers.

I’m not a research or educational scientist, and have no data on hand to prove this – but something tells me open-ended self-evaluations like these help students make the material presented and practiced in class their own, and that they’ll use those “lessons learned” themselves more readily in the future than those that take tests or simply write the required reports.

But if anyone has that multiple-choice test I’m looking for — the one that teaches people how to write better without actually doing any writing — please let me know.

I could use a break from all that grading!



Let’s Talk About Extra Credit

Extra credit seems to me to be one of those “teacher taboos,” one of those things rarely talked about openly for fear of being shunned forever or banned from the faculty lounge.

I believe you can meet the course competencies and requirements in the allotted class time AND ALSO engage and reward students through extra credit opportunities – but it takes creativity, control and discipline.

And ok, a tiny little bit more grading.

What’s an extra credit opportunity look like? Here are a few I use:

  • In composition courses, prewriting and invention are competencies, part of the writing process taught. But an extra credit opportunity BEFORE the prewriting assignment, where students share initial ideas about what they are going to write about with other students in a Canvas or other (safe and controlled) discussion forum, is an added (but useful) perk.
  • Peer review is another composition competency. I use a “standard” Word form with ten questions about drafts that students must complete. If students complete the peer review forms correctly, sufficiently, and on time, they can also submit an MS Word “Track Changes” red-line review (i.e. direct electronic markup) on the same papers for extra credit (and learn/practice a new technical skill they’ll potentially use in their careers).
  • F2F Creative Writing courses are often known for their “workshop” format, where writers openly analyze and discuss fellow student papers in a real-time circle.   In my online CRW courses, I have what I call “virtual workshops” at the end of each module: Students must complete the required writing process steps to participate — but the “virtual workshop” is a discussion forum at the end where they can (1) share their story with others in the class, and (2) get comments from/give comments to any other student in the class. Not every student MUST post their story, not every student MUST (or can) comment – but if they can and/or do, they get some extra credit points.
    • In my combined introductory and intermediate CRW courses, posting and commenting in the “Virtual Workshop” is optional for beginning students, but mandatory for advanced students. Look at all the cross-training and exposure that happens!

Where’s the “discipline” element in extra credit come in? You have to set up rules and regulations to make sure extra credit is actually a reward for good work and not an open path to grade inflation. Therefore, make your extra credit opportunities:

  • Meaningful.
  • Fairly difficult and/or challenging, above-and-beyond the expected norm.
  • An added opportunity, not a replacement for required assignments.
  • Not worth more than 5% of the total grade, so that extra credit alone can’t change a student’s letter grade.

For me, the most compelling reasons to use extra credit are:

  • Extra credit is a great motivator – human beings fall all over themselves to do something if they think they are getting something free or “extra.”
  • Extra credit soothes student fears and obsessions with grades – it helps them learn more “right stuff” more easily.
  • Extra credit gives students hope. Students (and other humans?) need hope to continue. When their hope dies, so does their confidence, their self-esteem, their motivation, and usually any chance at a passing grade and a better life.
  • Extra credit is a great way to judge initiative. In the last two weeks of a course, when students typically flood you with questions about what they can do to get a better grade, all you have to do is look back at the extra opportunities already given to see if they had the initiative and took advantage of what was already offered.  Makes it clear they, not you, are accountable.
  • Extra credit balances out all that extra work we instructors do to help struggling students that are performing below expectations — by rewarding those Type A students capable of and wanting to excel above and beyond.  “Catch people doing something right — and tell them.”

Extra credit? Let’s bring it out in the open and talk it over, exchange ideas. I’ll be in the faculty lounge, munching down cookies.


EXTRA (HAH! Gotcha): How do you do extra credit in Canvas? Set the extra credit assignment up like you would any other assignment (title, details, due date). But assign a point value of “zero.” That way, the points earned in the extra credit (specify the value in assignment details so students know and you don’t forget) is mathematically “extra” as well and computes correctly into the total course point percentage as “extra.”



Let’s Talk Assignment Schedules

At first glance, nothing seems quite as boring to talk about than assignment scheduling, right?  But the way you set assignments up says a lot about your attitude toward your students and your philosophy of education.

For a time I taught online for a Midwestern university where the policy was that all assignments were due Sunday midnight – no exceptions, because the program appealed to working adults.

While I adhered to the Sunday-midnight rule (of course!), I was relieved to come to Glendale and have more flexibility in my assignment scheduling.  While the “one-night” rule is perhaps convenient for student schedules, in reality it doesn’t work very well for overall assignment scheduling or learning:

  • When all assignments are due one night a week, some assignments are sitting in the submission “queue” a day or two or three while other assignments are sitting there more or less days.
  • The same thing happens in reverse on Sunday midnight: I consider myself a good instructor, but I still can’t grade all assignments from all my classes instantaneously – or usually even all assignments from any ONE class in one day.
  • So again, some assignments sit longer than others in my “grading” queue.
  • Now think about what all these delays look like to the students, who ALSO don’t do all assignments instantaneously or at once – how long has it been since they submitted their first assignment until they get feedback and a grade on it?

In manufacturing and computing, this “do it all at once” phenomenon is called “batch” processing.

So what is the better solution?  The answer is to maintain a regular schedule for assignments, but spread it out and do a little at a time versus one big “batch” each week.  I set up a 2x assignment schedule for my three classes as an adjunct.  It looks something like this (note that assignments are due at midnight — a student preference, I asked):

Class A:  Assignments due Monday and Thursday midnight

Class B: Assignments due Tuesday and Friday midnight

Class C: Assignments due Wednesday and Sunday midnight

No assignments due on Saturday (instructor gets Sunday “off” – yeah!)

What does a 2x, spread-out schedule do?

  • Students still have a regular assignment date – but now it is “dates,” i.e. twice a week, a schedule they can count on and get into a rhythm with
  • Students get more timely feedback from the instructor
  • Students are less likely to struggle or be confused long
  • Students get feedback on work done before more assignments are due
  • Instructors grade a little bit each day versus one grading “marathon” once a week
    • And probably do a better job
  • Instructors know almost immediately if a particular assignment is problematic or confusing to students, and can adjust as needed and more quickly.
  • The instructor and students now have twice the “touch” points – times when they are communicating with one another, providing feedback and reactions and questions and responses (essential in any online class)

One other thing to note about assignment scheduling: When I have a hybrid or FTF class, I do NOT have any assignments due from that class the day class meets.  Why not?  Because I want students to focus on the lesson, be engaged in our (short) time together, and not be so concerned about that assignment or wiped out from an all-nighter the day before.  I also want to go over that assignment with them before they do it – they do better and I get more of what I am looking for – which makes my grading easier as well.

The amount of work you do as an instructor in a 1x  or 2x assignment schedule is ultimately the same – but by making assignments due twice a week, you will give your students more timely feedback and a much better chance to succeed – and most of them will appreciate it.

You might even like the “every day but Sunday” regular schedule better yourself.


Use MLA and APA Templates in Composition Classes

I spent almost 30 years in aerospace technical writing before coming to Glendale to teach Freshman composition.  Aerospace technical writing uses Air Transport Association and military style guides that dictate not only format and presentation rules like APA and MLA do, but also dictate content requirements.  In business, the challenge in any new airplane program always was: How do we teach hundreds of technical writers (good subject matter/content experts) how to write in the new specification required by contract — quickly and cost-effectively?

Our answer in business was to use specification templates.  This template concept is transferable to academia. Imagine text book and Purdue OWL sample papers readily available in MS Word files.  Imagine that you are given an electronic copy and have free editing access to that copy.  Imagine putting YOUR content IN PLACE OF the content in the template while leaving the formatting intact, leaving only your own words and a properly-formatted paper in the end.

Using MLA and/or APA templates in a composition class can provide these benefits:

  • Save time and effort for students.
  • Save time and effort for instructors (~30% classroom time “saved” per a 2012 survey of Glendale English 101/102 instructors for a TYCA West presentation).
  • Conform to the style specification in the final paper – as good as or better than classes that do not use a template
  • Eliminate “arguments” over the right way to apply the style guide (the template is the style guide). If needed, work together as a class and change the template.
  • Eliminate worry about future revisions to/versions of the specification mid-term (the template is the style guide).
  • Add/reinforce MS Word skills for students.
  • Spend more time discussing good writing skills versus format details.
  • Create goodwill from students (“the instructor made this easy/wants me to succeed”)
  • Give students a proven sample/template they can use in their other college classes.
  • Prepare students better for what they will actually find in the work world.

While this template approach makes writing essays and reports easier for students (and correcting papers somewhat easier for instructors?), student success still relies heavily on student effort.  Note too that use of a template is not done in a void but rather in conjunction with the textbooks, Purdue OWL, and other sources.  The hardest thing to teach and reinforce, of course, is attention to detail – first time, every time.  This is something that you’ll need to constantly and continuously harp on, with or without a template.

My experience has also been that students appreciate the templates I provide and move more quickly and easily to writing good, compliant papers using templates.  My sense is that the resultant APA and/or MLA papers themselves are better written as well.  Of course, I’m also one of those guys that thinks all our modern productivity improvements will lead people to read more and be better informed.

Good thing hope springs eternal, eh?

A template for formatting? Give it a try — your students might just thank you!


How To Survive (and Thrive In!) A Hybrid Class!

My idea of surviving a hybrid class, once you’ve figured out you cannot possibly deliver all your fine course lectures and lessons and assignments in less than half the physical class time, is to develop your hybrid course FIRST as an online course.  This means developing and/or capturing discussions, assignments, quizzes, videos, lectures, so forth – everything you would normally teach over the normal course session (and more) in a F2F environment.

Instead of restricting instruction in any way, I’ve found that developing the hybrid course as an online course on Canvas FIRST is “freeing.” Doing so allows me to concentrate more on how to make the hybrid class sessions, the hour-and- fifteen-minute weekly meetings, that much more interactive and engaging for students.  Plus, no matter what we manage to get through in our weekly session, I can rest assured that all students have all the information and tools they need to succeed the next week.

My course content, then, is already captured and available online.  So what do my hybrid class sessions look like?

  • I start by putting a summary lesson plan on the board (attendance, questions, last week/this week, other keywords for my own use as well as theirs to “follow along”).
  • I draw my “peace symbol” on the board (three-part agenda: “yours,” “mine” and “ours” – your questions to me, my questions to students, our questions and comments for each other).
  • I make students write the titles, identifiers (ASSIGN1-2, ASSIGN3-4), and due dates of “Assignments Last Week” and “Assignments This Week” (in summary chart form) on the board (this gets students up and moving around and already engaged in a fail-safe environment – sets a good tone and precedent, and echos the theme that this class is in large part their responsibility).
  • I’ll typically ask student volunteers to write examples from the past week’s assignments on the board to prompt discussion and reinforce concepts.
  • I’ll give a five- to ten-minute lecture, occasionally, on this week’s module or key concept(s) – and/or on something I saw in their work that needs more reinforcement and/or needs to be headed off at the pass.
  • I’ll typically ask student volunteers to write examples for upcoming assignments on the board to prompt more discussion – for instance, ideas for their narrative or comparative essays, or their thesis statements, or…or…wherever we are in the process.
  • Whenever possible, I’ll let student volunteers demonstrate some of the technology points as well (Where are our grades at? How do I sign up for Connect?). They like talking from the “teacher’s” computer up front, though often we also help each other back and forth at their seats (I wander around a lot).
  • I reserve the last 10-15 minutes, typically, for any individual questions or one-on-one time needed by students that don’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of the group.

This method contains very little information-dumping — but it has a lot of information application and information sharing.  It is much closer to coaching and facilitating than traditional lecture-based teaching.  WARNING: This is a loud, fast, often all-over-the-map, very interactive session. It can be mentally and physically exhausting.  But it can also be participatory, engaging, stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, and, dare I say it, more effective?

I tell students at the first class that to me, hybrid classes are online classes with a once-a-week support/therapy session.  I’d be hard pressed most weeks to say who benefitted more – me or my students.