• On 12/03/2016
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Letting Go in the Classroom

images copyIn the last couple of weeks, I’ve had some interesting and invigorating conversations around pedagogy. What has made them interesting is that they’ve been quite diverse in topic and course, but the invigorating parts is that they have all included an intense commitment to trying to teach better.

On most days, I’m a pretty good teacher, and I am fortunate enough to know a large number of alumni who consistently report on the good (and bad) things that occurred in our program. That kind of feedback loop is not possible for a lot of people, but what it’s done for me is to keep me grounded on the things that work. And what works is completely letting go.

Here’s what I mean. After my first year teaching at UC when a comment on my evaluation called me a czar, I realized that I was holding on a little too tight. The next couple of years I worked at honing my classroom presence where students took more control, and I simply let go. Now, if you visit one of my classes, it’s hard to tell who–if anyone–is in charge 🙂

So what does that look like?


Often student assess themselves. What do you mean assess themselves? Well, I mean they assess themselves. We take the learning outcomes and the assignment and we create a grade sheet (some may call this a rubric 😉 and we collectively create what is important and weight it with points. We do this a few days after we’ve discussed the assignment in class so that there is a clear expectation about what the most important parts of the assignment are. For those that may counter we don’t have the time in class to do this, I would offer that this is actually more important because uncovers the often shadowy practice of what is it that they’re supposed to be learning. Just because we know intuitively or because we wrote an outcome doesn’t mean the students get it.

Then when it comes time to grade the assignments, they grade them. Sometimes I have students grade their own. Sometimes I have them grade someone else’s. Sometimes two people will grade each assignment. In doing it this way, the students gain a greater understanding of assessment, and more importantly, they can see different interpretations of the same idea. This openness and transparency gives them the power not only of their learning but how that learning is counted.

I would guess the big question is whether I over ride their grades. Most often not. In my experience and based on how I set up my classroom, students are generally fair. Often times their grades are not that different from what I would assign. I still look at assignments and discover common areas of strengths and weaknesses that we talk about collectively and often refer back to as the course progresses, but the heavy lifting of the drafts and finals are done collectively as a group.

So you simply start a discussion on what you think is important and then ask students what they think is important, and you craft a grade sheet on the board or overhead. It’s really that simple. (that’s the reason I don’t really have examples to post because they would be specific to my own course and students. I’m happy to answer questions if you have them. Just contact me.)

Purposeful small group work

It always drives me crazy when someone talks about putting students into groups as being an easier way to teach. If small group work is done correctly, it’s hard and taxing on the instructor, but it has huge pay offs. But, it’s also a little frightening because you no longer have control of the process. When students are in small groups and then they report back to the class, it falls to you to take what they think and the knowledge they’re producing and validate it and then move it forward.

Purposeful exercises mean that students will put into practice what they were supposed to read outside of class. Thus, it’s also important that you’re giving good directions or prompts for what they need to be thinking about outside of class.

Here’s a couple of examples that would apply to many courses in a technical and professional writing program.

  • whatever reading prompt or summary or discussion post or whatever you may have students do to help them read class material, you have to build off of that. So in a tech writing service course if they need to read about reports, then the next day in class you have them act out being a report. You put them in small groups and each person becomes a section of a report. The students will present to the class what role they play in a report’s organization or the main idea that needs to be in each section of a report.
  • I love an index card for teaching because it comes in handy in so many ways. In small groups have students create a hand-drawn presentation that presents the big takeaways from what they read. Each person in the group has to make a card.
  • If you have computers in the classroom or the students have their own, it’s always a great go-to in class exercise to have them find either successful or not so good examples about whatever the topic of the reading was. They have to find them and then present to the class about them

All of these exercises take a lot work for you as the instructor because you have to pay attention to be able to bring together what the students do in a meaningful manner. If you’re up to the challenge, this is the best way to teach.

Letting the students make decisions

letting_goThe more you talk about what the course is trying to accomplish and how class exercises, readings, and assignments can achieve those goals, the more students get invested in the class. What my teaching yoda taught me is that you have to make things transparent. You have to say out loud we’re doing this thing X because it should help you work on Y, which is an important part of this course. For example, take my information design class. Many of our classroom exercises are honing their skills as they work through learning new software and new ways of writing that includes more visual components. You can’t learn new software without playing with it, and often times students are a timid. This is when you remind them that know stuff and can transfer and apply stuff that they already know. Helping them along in this explicit ways will empower them to make decisions.

So what do I let them make decisions about? Many times I let them make decisions about the assignment. My assignments are so open ended that they have to make decisions, and in addition, I always give students the option to propose new alternatives. Often, I let them set the due dates. And as I said above, they also set how things are assessed.

Here’s an example of how this can work successfully. In my content management class, the students set the due dates of the assignments on the first day of class. After the third assignment, I gave them option of eliminating an assignment. They decided to eliminate the assignment, BUT to incorporate aspects of it into the final assignment because it was important for the overall outcomes. They would not have been able to make those decisions without feeling as though they could, and more importantly, understanding what the course is trying to accomplish.

I have to say I was quite proud listening to them talk through what to do. It’s good to let go in the classroom because amazing things can happen.

The first and only step is to let go.

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