For Teaching Fellows & Teaching Assistants


Being an instructor in a classroom is often an act of translation: The person who designed the course you're teaching (who may or may not be you) had a mental model of how an upcoming assignment will unfold, and students need the same mental model in order for the whole thing to be an intentional educational experience. Successful translation means clarifying what the designer's mental model is and communicating it—and knowing you've communicated it—to your students. 

Three moments in this process stand out: 

  1. Framing  the assignment, which roughly corresponds to walking through the prompt with students and unpacking each of its elements
  2. Scaffolding and sequencing the steps of the assignment, which involves the class meetings that prepare students to complete an assignment. How this looks will depend on the type of assignment your students are working with, e.g., for a capstone research essay assignment, this moment might last for a large part of the semester.
  3. Feedback on the assignment, which certainly means giving students feedback in the form of the final, summative feedback that comes with a grade, but ideally means moments of lower-stakes, formative feedback throughout the timeline of the assignment.

For each of these moments there are common challenges, some of which are more likely to occur in Gen Ed courses, and some of which are fairly common overall. In any situation, though, the same concrete advice and tools can make each moment easier to navigate and allow all of the moments to work together.

Advice and Tools

Framing: Start with you and your teaching team

Clarifying the designer's mental model for an assignment can sometimes feel easier said than done. Some prompts are very explicit about all of the elements involved in an assignment while others will be more explicit about some elements than about others; some assignments will get a lot of framing in the course syllabus or lectures; others less. In any case, working through the assignment decoder exercise for TFs & TAs as early as possible is a good way to identify questions you can discuss with your teaching team about an assignment. Having done that, you can use the assignment decoder exercise for students to test the alignment of your mental model of the assignment with your students'. 

Scaffolding and Sequencing: Start from the end

In general, when you're planning out the individual section meetings and smaller assignments that will build toward a draft or revision, it's best to start from the end. Beginning with the submission date for the assignment and using the assignment decoder exercise for TFs & TAs to help lay out the different steps students will be taking during the writing process, you can work your way backwards to the earliest steps, e.g., actively reading the assigned texts in your course and identifying the kinds of questions or themes that might generate a meaningful essay or policy memo.

Feedback: Start with your rubric

Effective feedback is essentially a series of observations based on a shared set of elements and criteria, together with guidance about improvement. In order to make those observations consistently and communicate them clearly to students, you need to know what elements you're looking for in a draft and why a given moment in that draft is or isn't succeeding (i.e., based on what criteria). And you need to know which elements matter more than others, e.g., whether a podcast project should get more feedback on its audio editing or how it imagines its intended audience. 

Rubrics are the best way to stay focused on what matters and maintain both clarity and consistency. And for rubrics to reflect a shared set of elements and criteria, they need to be something that you and your students discuss before they turn in any writing. If this all feels like a lot of extra steps for you as an instructor, the upside is that the whole thing solves itself if we step back and look at the whole feedback loop of an assignment this way:

  1. Framing an assignment prompt is most effective if you've made sure you know how each element is working and how they're all working together as a whole. 
  2. Sorting out concretely how the elements work and their relative importance is, in effect, creating a rubric—and creating a rubric in this early stage, long before any student work is submitted, is a great way to schematize your mental model of the assignment as a whole. 
  3. There's your rubric! (The assignment decoder exercise for instructors can help with all of these steps, and you can read more about rubrics and download samples at the Bok Center's page on Grading and Responding to Student Work.)