All posts by Marcy Slapcoff

Being a layperson in pharmacology

My identities in life are many – a staff member at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, a mother–daughter-sister-wife, a former waitress-house painter-birthday party animator, etc. However, thanks to Prof. Terry Hébert in Pharmacology, I can now add “lay person” to the list.  Last week, Prof. Hébert invited me and a group of other non-pharmacology types to read student papers and provide comments.
Continue reading Being a layperson in pharmacology

My farmer, my teacher

Earlier this fall I spent an afternoon in my farmers’ field digging up carrots. Yes, I am part of community supported agriculture (CSA) – this particular group is led by a couple whose farm is in the outskirts of Montreal. Every week, I enjoy deliveries of fresh, local, organic and DELICIOUS vegetables. However, this Sunday was different. Instead of bringing my canvas bags to the neighborhood drop-off point to pick up my veggies, I headed across the bridge to where the vegetables are actually grown. Continue reading My farmer, my teacher

Student writing: old school skill needs an updated approach

In recent conversations with faculty members, many have affirmed the importance of old school skills in higher education. One of these skills is writing.  Oftentimes, universities expect students to arrive with these skills fully developed and therefore, not much time is spent in-class helping students to practice and improve. The results, when assignments are handed in, can be disappointing.

So, what can instructors do to improve student writing? The answer: design assignments that promote student learning and build in opportunities for reflection and feedback.

There is no doubt that this takes time, but even short assignments can be a powerful way to help students develop these much-needed communication skills. The key is to plan assignments carefully and devote some in-class time to make sure students understand your expectations

Here are some strategies to improve student writing:

  1. Frame your assignment around a question or problem, not a topic.

Engage students in a meaningful task by asking them to address a question or investigate a problem. This type of assignment provides structure while introducing students to the type of issues common in your discipline.

Consider these ideas:

  • Pose a research question instead of presenting a topic. For example, instead of “Write about climate change and variability in weather”, you would ask students to argue why the cold winter of 2014 in North America is not a sign that the climate change is a myth.
  • Assign students a specific task rather than leaving the assignment open-ended. For example, giving students the freedom to choose their own research question promotes their autonomy but it also has its drawbacks: 1) you may need to do extra background reading to assess their papers fairly; 2) they may be too junior to choose a question that is appropriate in scope (an extremely challenging task, even for experts!)
  • Ask students to consider alternative points of view and reach a conclusion of their own.
  • Assign students a role and ask them to defend a particular position. Sometimes students are too unfamiliar with a discipline to take a well-reasoned position. Assigning a role may alleviate anxiety and allow them to focus on their argumentation skills instead.
  1. Select from a variety of types of writing
    • Academic writing is by scholars for scholars. It reflects the skills most valued in higher education:  citation, documentation, reasoning and evidence.  Examples: summaries, critiques, research papers, research posters.
    • Professional or Vocational writing is what you find in the world of work. Students use the forms of writing they are likely to encounter during their careers. This varies according to discipline. Examples: case reports, 2-page summaries, fact sheets, policy papers.
    • Civic or Popular writing is for the public. This type of writing seeks to inform opinions and decisions of the public. Examples: Newspaper editorials, letters-to-the-editor, open letters, speech at city council meeting.
    • Personal and Interpersonal writing reflects psychological or interpersonal interests. It can build connections with other people or satisfy an individual’s needs for expression. Examples: reflection journals, blog entries, interviews.
  1. Tell the writers who their readers are. 

Knowing who the audience is helps writers make decisions about language, tone, format and which information to include.

Consider these ideas:

  • Make it clear if you are the only audience (but don’t be disappointed if students are not that enthused)
  • Give students a real audience by having them prepare something for peers, or for an on-line audience
  • Give students a fictional audience by experimenting with the non-academic types of writing described in Point #2 above.

4. Clarify expectations to students.  

Students’ previous writing experience often does not prepare them for work in your class (especially if they are never given explicit writing instruction in your discipline). Therefore, taking the time to provide clear instructions is an investment that usually results in better writing from students. Consider these ideas:

    • Explain why this assignment is important and why writing is important (if you don’t know then maybe you should consider assigning something else or talking to someone at your writing center!)
    • Share assessment criteria & standards with students (rubrics, checklists).
    • Provide models of published work and lead a discussion about their features.
    • Provide examples of work from former students (with permission) and lead a discussion about their features
    • Have students generate their own criteria for an assignment and discuss how they reflect or differ from your own expectations.
  1. Use class time to engage students in conversations about the assignment

By taking time in class to address writing assignments, you help students see how important they are. It can also be an opportunity for peer learning and allow students to test out ideas in a low-risk environment before committing them to paper.

Consider these ideas:

    • Together, analyze the types of readings students are using.
    • Ask students to share what they are currently reading for their assignment and how it relates to the topic of the day.
    • Explain how expert writers construct any part of an assignment (e.g., the Introduction) and invite students to ask questions.
    • Have students brainstorm questions to research for a paper.
  1. Structure in opportunities for revision

The only way for students to improve their writing is for them to keep writing. You can help this process along by giving them several opportunities to write, receive feedback and apply that feedback to their next assignments. 

Consider these ideas:

  • Students submit multiple drafts of the same assignment and you provide feedback for that pinpoints how they can improve.
    • Encourage self-evaluation by providing a short checklist of criteria that students must fill in and submit with their assignment.
    • Encourage peer-evaluation by coaching students on what you are looking for; focusing on a small set of criteria; promote peers giving each other comments, not grades.


Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom.

Relaunching the Teaching for Learning Blog

There’s a change afoot at McGill. More and more people on campus are interested in changing things up – crossing boundaries, breaking down silos, and using new technologies. Today, we are re-launching this blog and inviting you to join the conversation about any issue related to teaching and learning.

In the coming weeks, we will be experimenting with different layouts, functions and plug-ins. Stay tuned as this work-in-progress evolves, and feel free to comment on these changes!

Some of our upcoming posts include a series about how to assess students in large classes, teaching tips for new Professors, graduate  student perspectives on learning to teach, ongoing debates about MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Course) in higher education, and more.

We have a core group of authors (check out the new Authors page!) and are looking for more contributors. Let us know if you are interested:  you can write once a month or once in a while – we are looking for you perspectives about teaching and learning!

Turning class participation into short written assignments

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

In the entry from the Teaching Professor Blog pasted below, , suggests that instructors give students a participation grade for writing ABOUT participation, not for talking up in class. What a novel idea!  Weimer writes that the common approach to grading participation rewards students who like to talk and know that verbal participation will win them points.  Instead, she suggests that writing short papers  is a more fruitful strategy for helping students appreciate how important interaction is to the  learning process. As she explains, “With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. ” She provides a list of guiding questions that faculty can use to get students started. I like this idea because it opens up the participation grade to more students and gets everyone writing (and thinking!) which is always a good thing. Faculty may worry that more writing means more grading and Weimer addresses this by suggesting that faculty grade these short assignments for completion rather than using a complex set of criteria. I am curious about this strategy so please let me know if you use it already or want to try it out!


Originally posted on October 23, 2013

Grading Participation: An Alternative to Talking for Points

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.

Is grading participation an effective way for students to discover how and why classroom interaction promotes learning? I’ve been considering alternatives, including this one: “Participation, as in what you contribute verbally, is not graded in this course, but your writing about participation is.”

With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. They would write the papers in response to the following prompts.

My Participation Skills – Do you participate? Why? Why not? What do you do when you participate? Ask questions? Answer questions? Only answer when you know the right answer? Make comments? What participation skills would you like to develop? How might you go about working on these skills? At the end of the course, how will you know if your skills in this area have improved?

Observing Participation – For the next two weeks observe participation as it occurs in this class. What do students do when they participate? How does the teacher respond? How well are students listening to each other? What’s the most interesting student comment or question you heard during this observation period? How could participation be improved in this class? What could you do to improve the interaction in this classroom?

Or, for two weeks observe participation in your other courses. How does participation there compare with what’s happening in this course? Be specific—write about behaviors. What are students doing? What is the teacher doing? If there are differences between courses, what are they and to what would you attribute these differences?

The Role of Participation in Learning – Write about any or all of these participation policy questions and, using your answer(s), conclude with a paragraph that discusses the role of participation in learning.

  • Should students have the right to remain silent in a course if they can learn the content without talking about it?
  • Should teachers call on students if they haven’t volunteered? Explain why.
  • If participation is graded, does that motivate students to answer questions and make comments? Does it motivate verbal contributions for the right reasons?
  • If participation is graded, how much should it count?
  • Do students learn things from the comments and questions of other students? Could they learn more than they do? How?
  • What kind of feedback from the teacher and classmates would help improve your contributions in class?
  • The ability to answer questions when called on and to speak up in a group are important skills, how do these skills factor into your future career plans?

My Participation Skills Revisited – Reread your three participation papers and then answer these prompts. Compare your participation skills now with your description of them written at the beginning of the course. Has your thinking about the role of participation in learning changed? What needs to happen now for you to take your participation skills to the next level?

Faculty, I know you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of papers to grade.” But I think the learning benefit here comes from writing these papers, not from teacher feedback. The objective is to hone observational skills, encourage reflection, and get students engaged in some serious self-reflection. I’d assess these papers with a rubric that mostly looks at whether the student took the task seriously. I’d limit written feedback to one pithy question raised by what the student has written. Some of the feedback will likely apply to many students and that can be delivered in class or online. In either venue, you could use it to encourage discussion about interaction in the class (or online discussion board). And certainly you can modify the assignment structure to better fit your needs—shorter papers, fewer papers, etc.

Do you think the learning potential of student interaction is lost or compromised when we fuel students’ contributions by giving them points? An assignment option like this doesn’t totally change that dynamic—there’s still a grade involved—but it does offer students a different perspective.

Learning to scythe

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

This summer my husband taught me to use a scythe. I accepted my friends’ indulgent smiles when I raved about the experience but I knew that many considered this to be a foolhardy and retrograde pursuit. Some asked, “Would you like to borrow our mower?” or “Why not pay your neighbor to cut the field?” assuming our choice was due to lack of funds or lack of awareness of the advancement in power tools since the Industrial Revolution.  I, however, grew to love the scythe and savored the time I spent moving the blade back and forth across our meadow in Vermont.  I  could extoll the virtues of the scythe at length – the contact it allowed me with the grass and the ground,  the slow and steady pace it set, the satisfaction it led to  a job well done —  but I could never match the accuracy or the beauty of the celebrated essay by Wendell Berry A good scythe.” In this essay, Berry recounts how short-lived  experience with a power scythe led him to believe in the superiority of the hand-held, human-motored version.

Berry writes, “These differences have come to have, for me, the force of a parable. Once you have mastered the hand scythe, what an absurd thing it makes of the power scythe! What possible sense can there be in carrying a heavy weight on your shoulder in order to reduce by a very little the use of your arms? Or to use quite a lot of money as a substitute for a little skill?”  (Organic Gardening Magazine, January 1980)

I consider these words of Berry’s to be wisdom for the ages. There is a common belief right now in higher education that students are so accustomed to communicating via digital technologies that traditional modes of education are no longer adequate. I resist this notion. It is true that today’s digital natives are much more at home with new technologies than previous generations but that does not mean that they can’t learn from older, slower forms of instruction that prioritize human contact, dialogue and interaction. Like the old-fashioned scythe, the old-fashioned classroom has a place IF it is well-made, with attention to details that make it powerful. In the case of the scythe that might be the arc and sharpness of the blade, the length of the handle, the overall weight of the tool. In the case of the classroom the details that matter are the potential  for instructors to convey the changeability of knowledge, the opportunity to invite questions and dialogue, the time to celebrate collaboration and reflection. These elements are old-fashioned but they are still powerful and they still need to be nurtured in the modern university.

Short writing assignments: something to consider

Many faculty shy away from short writing assignments, considering them to be the poorer cousin of the term paper or research paper.  There is a commonly held assumption that shorter assignments can never match the rigor or substance of longer papers and that faculty are letting students down if they don’t assign a full-length paper (whatever that is according to the conventions of each discipline). Yet, what are faculty to do in a context of increasing class sizes and decreasing TA support? How can we still assess important outcomes such as analysis, synthesis and critical thinking?  Moreover, how can we infuse these elements into courses that have tradtionally relied on quizzes and exams for assessment?  Many faculty at McGill have already discovered one answer to this dilemma: the short writing assignment. These assignments can take many forms – from a 500-word response to a question posed by Prof. Andre Costopoulos in a 200-level evolutionary theory class to a policy brief assigned by Prof. Madhav Badami in a class in Urban Planning.   On Oct. 30th the  workshop “Beyond the research paper – new ways to get students writing”  is being offered by TLS where we will share many more of these of examples and discuss how to design short writing assignments that engage students, provide meaningful tasks, and assess higher order thinking skills. To find out more and register, click here.