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In Class Assignments For College Students

As we mentioned in the June 28 and July 5 posts, during the opening keynote at The Teaching Professor Conference, Elizabeth F. Barkley, a professor at Foothill College and author of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (Jossey-Bass, 2010) presented on a topic she titled Terms of Engagement: Understanding and Promoting Student Engagement in Today’s College Classroom.

At the conclusion of the session, she asked attendees to write on a note card one or two ways they promote active learning in their classrooms. As you can imagine, the exercise generated hundreds of great ideas; which we will continue to share during the next couple weeks. We encourage you to add in the comment box your own strategies for engaging and motivating students.

Here are more student engagement tips from attendees:
Getting students involved and making learning their own: I use a participation portfolio that students can choose the things they want to include. They collect/include any item that includes an aspect of American government (political event, election, school meeting, current event, etc.) From this, students see how they can be involved in their learning (and their government)

Task assignment: Oral presentation (10 minutes, 3-5 good sources) on a topic related to what will be on next exam. Very experienced, knowledgeable students are challenged by how to make their knowledge clear, to the point, and related to our course topic. Very weak students are challenged by finding 3-5 “good business sources,” e.g., Wall Street Journal, Business Week, NYT, etc.

When students have a major project, I expect and plan time for them to submit it for feedback before they submit it for a grade—it promotes a “safe” environment and an expectation for success.

I divide the class into a number of groups and they work on problems together. Then they can share with others in class.

I teach business communication; in class one, I ask students to think of a real example of a positive and a negative communications experience. Then we analyze their examples.

Conflict management: Assign students to think of one difficult person they have interacted with who causes tension or conflict. Task is to take one insight from the basic communication course and do one thing different in the next encounter with this person. They submit a brief report on the result. The assignment is due in 4-8 weeks to give students ample time to plan and reflect.

Test often. It keeps them motivated and builds students’ confidence.

Put the student in the shop and have them try their new skills

Make what is being taught relevant to the students’ lives. Example: Teaching about percent concentrations in chemistry, talk about DUI and percent alcohol in blood in determined and calculated.

To create a vision of real-life experience based on learning certain skills in management.

Tell students how the material will relate to their futures; use real world examples/documents.

Hands on learning: Practical experimental learning. Doing the tasks or following the lecture online or using a computer as the lesson/lecture is done or taught.

Balance grade point totals between multiple categories (exams, cases, lead class discussion, current event, worksheets, etc.). This allows students who don’t excel in one area to make up ground in another.

When composing homework assignments, I combine questions of varying difficulty. I ultimately include a problem or two beyond the difficulty required for my course and offer extra credit for solving these problems. The number of students that choose to step up to the challenge is so incredibly refreshing and motivating.

Active Learning: Independent laboratory projects are the best way I have found to promote active learning.

What do you do to help students value what they are learning? Take the mystery of the reason out of it. In other words, I let the students into the conversations in higher education about why we do what we do and what we hope they get out of it. Then I ask them what we can change for them to get out of it what we hope.

Motivation: Find a “hot issue” and use that to get students to formulate solutions and evaluate responses to solutions. Example: Nobody is happy paying sales taxes. Would you abolish taxes? How will you make up the money lost is sales taxes are abolished?

Active Learning: After working through the concepts, I give students random objects. In groups they draw analysis to the concepts connecting the ideas and sharing with their group members.

Motivation: The instructor indentifies a variety of assignments that meet the objective and that provides for different learning styles of students from which students may choose.

Pull something out of a website from today’s financial markets and link it to something we will talk about today and have the students tell us how that link can be used to help in their career quest.

When teaching graduate students how to teach online, I encourage them to consider face-to-face methods that are effective for certain topics and use parallel/similar techniques online, such as small group discussion or think/pair/share. These techniques can be effective online as well.


Expand what appears on a PowerPoint slide and ask students to refute it.


For motivation, my version of a “wildcard” assignment in my American Literature class: Pick one of the following: digital storytelling, paper (critical, pedagogical—for my pre-service teachers), creative), American literature game, or poster. But each one requires critical reflection.

To increase expectation of success: Because I know how difficult it is for students to remember everything they have learned and/or studied for a test, I offer some choice items (fig., choose A or B) so they can show what they know.

Community—I do team-building exercises at the beginning of the semester.

Active learning: Have students take responsibility for their learning by applying lesson concepts to their occupations, field of expertise, and personal experience.

Model these attributes in everything I do (from day 1); if I am enthusiastic, clear in my expectations, and believe the value of what we’re doing, they will be more engaged.

“15 Minutes of Fame”: The student gets to choose a topic they feel they could teach the class (for 15 minutes), they become the expert with certain guidelines to follow. Motivation—they are the “star” for 15 minutes. Active learning—they research. Task—they choose the topic. Community—they all practice with each other to get feedback before their 15 minute presentation. Holistic—they learn all types of things; respect, confidence, professionalism, body language, etc.

To develop a class community, I ask students to post a blog entry on-line (campus topic) and read other posts and comment. I have the students use their names.

Be positive and available. Have a form for the first day of classes asking students questions to ascertain how they came to a Post-secondary Institution, such as; Were you asked to be here? (By your parents), How do you feel about being here?

Motivation: Offer one question thrown out on quiz for “classroom” 100 percent attendance. “Stickers” to reward “A’s.”


I have 8-10 guest speakers come in.

I have 2 group assignments to go out and interview experts in industry for presentations.

Active learning: In a writing course, students receive each others drafts throughout the semester and one by one the whole class peer reviews the drafts. Students learn from other student papers and gain critical feedback on their own paper. In other words, every paper is read by every student, and every student must provide feedback.

For community & challenge: I use team service-learning projects in which students work on real organizational tasks which are challenging.

Public Speaking—End of the semester speech competition: all completed outside the regular class time. Motivation—Winning class does not have to take the final. Work as a community—The whole class has to contribute; vote on class speakers, visual and preparation outline, etc.

Community/Motivational Task: Visiting, via field trips, museums, during a class on Foundations in Bilingual Education or Methods of Teaching Social Science.

Sense of Community: I use “team-based learning” in my intro courses.

Holistic learning: So important to have students reflect on a learning experience and talk about how it felt (what we their emotions?) and how they might do things differently.

After presenting a concept, I summarize by asking students to think (and share) these about the concept: Who cares? Why do they care?

Motivate: Start each class with a “hook”—something that is contextual and related to the day’s concepts—provides relevancy and captures interest and involvement.

Motivation—Self motivated. Active Learning—Presentation (group). Task—Never Presented before. Community—Form groups 4-5 students. Holistic Learning—All applied info evenly.

I tell my students that I learn from them even as I teach. Learning is a shared activity. We are a community of seekers traveling toward a goal of knowledge.

Value: Speaker from related career speak on the outcome of education.

Motivation & Active Learning: To teach costume history, I had students write about why they wear clothes and why change certain items, compared to an appropriate moment in history.

I engage students to choose a concept from the course and teach a segment of the class.

Use short appropriate videos (expectancy) and tie it to a career (value) strategy.

Get the class to teach itself a concept/jigsaw.

With 40 students, divide into 8 groups of 5. 20 minute study sessions, with materials provided, then a 10 minute presentation from each group, followed up with a 10 minute debrief.

I start with an activity that will captivate their attention.

Get students to take ownership of their own learning. Provide them with projects and subject matter that connects to them personally. Show them how their knowledge can impact the world.

Motivation: Emphasize constantly how the new knowledge will serve them in their future.

Work optimally, feel valued, and learn holistically. I set the students up as instructors. They choose a brief lesson in a particular technique. They then present to the class, then the school.

Motivation: Had students act as ambassadors. They go promote the department and in doing so, realize why they like it.

Motivation: Since I am aware that “I” cannot “motivate” anyone, as motivation comes from within oneself and since I teach medicine, I always and continually remind my “medical students” that patients will be putting their lives in their hands and they deserve to be seen by a competent provider.

Teaching a skills lab (hands on) in learning to examine to different use of the knowledge.

Active Learning: Use real life examples (personal case studies) to relate students to students to learning.

Motivation: Don’t put deadlines on learning. If a student learns yesterday, tomorrow or in two weeks, the grade is the same.

Value: Have students negotiate evaluation methods (test & assignments) based on learning outcomes for the course.

Community: I give students a questionnaire to fill out on day 1 & then the 2nd week, put them into groups of 3-4 students with similar goals & backgrounds. They sit in their groups in class & during class, do problem solving exercises together. They help each other and learn from each other.

Measureable results: Apply task initially and again in 8 weeks, then they are graded on the growth.

Showing students how the subject relates to ‘real life’ is a real motivator. I use examples from TV shows and the news to drive the point home.

Take students’ pictures 1st day of class and memorize their names. Call students by name from the 2nd class on. Use their names frequently. This instills community and aids in engagement because students cannot hide.

Enhance value and therefore motivation by applying concepts to current and actual problems form the students’ live. It works well in Psychology of Learning and Motivation and Emotion courses.

Always find a means to connect content with everyday things. While difficult for everything, very effective for the ones you have. I am an ecologist, so anecdotal stories go miles. Students love it.

Motivation: Excitement/Passion. If I present my subject matter with passion and excitement (show my passion and excitement for biology), students (not all, but some) have commented that this gets them excited about biology and motivates them to learn about it too.

Got a tip? Please share it below.

Posted in Effective Teaching Strategies
Tagged with active learning, building student engagement, Effective Teaching Strategies, student engagement

Informal, in-class writing activities

Pamela Flash

Informal, exploratory writing, when assigned regularly, can lead students to develop insightful, critical, and creative thinking. Experience tells us that without this prompted activity, students might not otherwise give themselves enough time and space to reflect on class content, or to forge connections that will allow them to remember and use ideas from assigned readings, lectures, and other projects. These brief writing activities also allow instructors to get a general sense of students’ grasp of course concepts and materials, and can, in turn, inform future lecture notes, class plans, and pacing.

What follows is an annotated listing of some of the more common write-to-learn activities assigned in classrooms across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota.


Freewriting, a form of automatic writing or brainstorming trumpeted by writing theorist Peter Elbow, requires students to outrun their editorial anxieties by writing without stopping to edit, daydream, or even ponder. In this technique, all associated ideas are allowed space on the page as soon as they occur in the mind. Five-minute bouts of freewriting can be useful before class to spark discussion; in the middle of class to reinvigorate, recapitulate, or question; and at the end of class to summarize. It is also useful at many points in the drafting process: during the invention stage as students sift for topics, and during the drafting process as they work to develop, position, or deepen their own ideas.

There are at least two types of freewriting assignments: focused and unfocused. Focused freewrites allow students opportunities to initiate or develop their thinking on a topical, instructor-supplied prompt, for example, “What is a virus?” Unfocused freewrites, on the other hand, allow students to simply clear their minds and prepare for content activity. In either form, students are instructed to write generic phrases like “I can’t think of anything to say, I can’t think of…” or “Nothing nothing nothing” if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.

It’s important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what they’ve written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that may be glittering from amidst the verbal rubble (see example below). These insights might then be developed into formal writing assignments, or at least be contributed to discussions.

Note also that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.

This excerpt is from a timed freewrite and shows the student’s subsequent highlights.

One-minute papers

One-minute papers are usually written in class on an index card or scrap of paper, or out-of-class via email. The limited space of the card forces students to focus and also presents such a small amount of writing space that it usually lowers levels of writing anxiety. On their cards, students may be asked to summarize, to question, to reiterate, to support or counter a thesis or argument, or to apply new information to new circumstances. Such writing helps students to digest, apply, and challenge their thinking, achieving enough confidence to contribute fruitfully to class discussions. These short writing assignments also deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors on what students are learning.

The following are examples of prompts:

  • Any discipline:
    Create a bumper sticker that would summarize yesterday’s lecture.

    Without referring to the text, jot down one or two points that surprised you.

  • Anthropology:
    Try to view this slide through the eyes of a member of your target subculture. List your observations in the order they occur to you.
  • Medical Ethics:
    “People suffering from schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder should/should not be forced to take their medication" (Bean 124).
  • Algebra:
    Think of examples of your own personal experience to illustrate the uses of vector algebra. You might consider such experiences as swimming in a river with a steady current, walking across the deck of a moving boat, crossing the wake while water-skiing, cutting diagonally across a vacant lot while friends walk around the lot, or watching a car trying to beat a moving train to a railroad crossing. Use one or more of these experiences to explain to a friend (a Kinesiology major) what vector algebra is all about. Use both words and diagrams (adapted from Bean 121).


Scenarios are short, imaginative writing activities that allow students to broach a topic or apply content to new contexts. Examples of scenario activities include writing letters, editorials, memos, and persona pieces such as dialogues or role play.

Sample prompts include the following:

  • Create a hypothetical dialogue between 3-5 individuals who have different perspectives on, but definite stakes in, your argument.
  • Write a short letter to the author of this novel in which you pose unresolved question(s).
  • You are Adam Smith. You have an intercom connection to WorldCom. What do you say?
  • Write a letter to an elderly and taciturn patient (who has recently been diagnosed with diabetes) explaining what is meant by the glycemic index of foods and why knowing about the glycemic index will help her/him to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.


Logbooks (called journals* in some contexts) provide students with opportunities to think through material in their own voices. They may be structured or unstructured, requiring students to complete frequent short entries in which they, for example, summarize material, connect course topics with their observations and experiences, answer questions you design, or reflect on their own notes using double-entry notebooks. Unlike individual short writing assignments, logbooks compile student writing throughout an assignment, a unit, or semester and, like portfolios, allow students to see the development of their observations, ideas, and skills. These notes may be kept in notebooks, binders, or electronic folders.

* You are cautioned against calling the logbook a journal or diary. Students may associate those terms with strictly personal records of intimate thoughts and wishes and day-to-day activity. Students need to be clear that the purpose of a logbook is the open (public) record of ideas and findings.


Microthemes, conventionally similar to the one-minute paper, have, in practice, taken the form of one-page papers written outside class. Informal and exploratory, these assignments should, again, present students with low-risk situations where they can feel free to speculate and work through their thoughts, paving the way for more sophisticated analysis and evaluation. Examples include the following:

  • History:
    Write a microtheme of between 250-350 words on the following topic: China and India both had dramatic encounters with Western countries during the nineteenth century.  Select an encounter each country had with the West in the 1800s and compare and contrast the Chinese and Indian responses. Discuss these two responses in terms of at least one trend in world history.
  • Wildlife Conservation and Management:
    Write a microtheme addressing an issue or concern based on a news release from a non-governmental organization (NGO) or other stakeholder group. The news release of the NGO should be from the period November 1999 - January 2000. Write the microtheme from the perspective of a natural resource agency person (you). The microtheme will be addressed to me, your supervisor. You will express, and defend, either your opposition or your support of the perspective raised in the news release. You will be expected to use the World Wide Web (WWW). In addition, give the WWW address for the NGO or stakeholder group.

Teaching with informal writing assignments: some notes on procedure

  • When introducing the activity, give students your rationale for assigning it. Avoid characterizing it as a “fun little writing activity.”
  • If you’re using a prompt, present it both orally and visually by writing it on the board or projecting it on the screen. Exceptions include disciplines where response to oral instructions is valued.
  • Whenever possible, do the activity yourself before presenting it to students and/or do it along with them in the class. This makes a significant impact on student motivation.
  • Before students write, describe next steps. Will the writing be collected? discussed? included in an assignment portfolio? graded? If students are going to be able to be truly informal, they need to know that they aren’t going to be judged on the quality of their exploratory writing.
  • Be clear about time limits (“I’ll stop you in 5 minutes”) and when time is almost over, give a one-minute or 30-second warning.
  • At the completion of the assignment, ask students to reflect on insights and developments.
  • If you collect student writing, summarize, or at least highlight and comment on your findings during a subsequent class.

Effective write-to-learn assignments...

  • Ask students to write a word, a sentence, question, or a paragraph or two
  • Are integrated (explicitly) into class content, objectives, and activity, and, are optimally, utilized in subsequent writing projects
  • Elicit multiple responses
  • Where appropriate, receive some content-focused (versus mechanics-focused) response
  • Aren't formally graded, but count toward a portion of the grade

Now what?: responding to informal writing

If the primary purpose of informal writing is learning (rather than communicating what has been learned) and if the intended audience is usually limited to the writer, how are instructors advised to grade or respond to the writing generated by these activities? Unlike finished student work elicited by more formal assignments, informal writing is not assessed for style or grammar; you’ve asked students to formulate and pursue ideas in a creative and potentially messy process. With this in mind, consider the following strategies for working with completed informal assignments:

For in-class short-writes:

  • Do nothing more: continue with the discussion, demonstration, or lecture, confident that the activity succeeded in allowing students to deepen their understanding of the target content.
  • Follow the activity by giving students class time to voice ideas and/or questions they may have uncovered by writing. In large classes, ask students to discuss ideas from their writing with a peer in order to share or synthesize responses that you then pull into discussion.
  • Collect the writing with or without student names. You can read them quickly for your own information, and then summarize this information in the next class session, or you can grade them (check, check minus, check plus).
  • Ask students to keep their writing until the semester’s end, then hand in their five best for grading.

Three important caveats:

  • Freewriting often results in personal writing that students should not be asked to make public. Make sure that you are clear about audience before the assignment is undertaken.
  • Whether or not their informal writing receives a grade or comment, students should be given credit for doing it. Allocating a percentage of their final course grades to informal assignments and/or class participation can allow you a place to accumulate the minor number of points given to these small assignments. You might also ask students to compile and turn in all “process pieces” like drafts and informal writing with a final project, and allocate a percentage of that project’s cumulative grade.
  • Anticipating that students may be as unfamiliar with un-graded assignments as they are with the whole concept of writing-to-learn, expect that their engagement with either aspect may require some discussion of rationale on your part as you introduce the activities.

For longer informal assignments:

Longer pieces of writing done outside class (microthemes, logbooks, response papers) are read for content. Instructor or peer comments should focus primarily on relevance to the assignment and quality of ideas. Criteria for success in these assignments is usually based on the thoughtfulness of students’ responses and their ability to think coherently on paper. If you find that a student’s ideas are obscured by error-ridden writing, you won’t be able to respond to them.

Writing supportive and engaging comments is, of course, the ideal as these comments will reinforce the idea that these informal assignments are indeed about exploration and the pursuit of insight. If writing substantial comments is not an option time-wise, you (or a classmate) can still note brief questions and reactions in the margins.

Grading informal writing assignments:

Respond with a simple check plus (excellent), check (satisfactory), or check minus (sub-adequate) and, if time is limited, minimal comments:

“Your insights on issues relating to privacy in health care reporting are strong and could be developed into a compelling argument!”

“You’ve named some of the most important issues involved with privacy and health care, but don’t develop any of them persuasively.”

“You’ve summarized the articles and have responded thoughtfully, but don’t answer the assigned question.”


Bean, John. C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.