Thursday, March 14, 2019

How to Write Writing Assignments

What are you handing me?
Image by James Cohen used with Creative Commons License
Do you shudder  or get a little squeamish when students hand in their papers and dread the inevitable hours upon hours of grading? Writing better assignment sheets means getting back papers that better meet faculty expectations, making your job easier and student success higher.

When writing your assignment sheets, think carefully about the rhetorical situation you want the students to envision, the qualities of the writing that are most important to you, and how examples of the assignment meet your requirements.

The Rhetorical Situation

One of the many ways faculty can ask for and receive better papers from students is to carefully craft assignment sheets that clarify what's called the rhetorical situation. This includes telling students who their intended audience is meant to be (the professor, peers, or professionals in a particular discipline, for example), their purpose for writing, which is linked to one of the four modes of communication, and their focus, which would include the broad topic and examples of more narrowed subtopics.

  • Audience - Who's it for, and how does that change the language, use of sources, and depth?
  • Purpose - Is the student mostly meant to inform, persuade, describe, or tell a story?
  • Focus - What are appropriate topics and subtopics?

These distinctions can mean the difference between getting back papers called "Science Fair: How to Farm Earthworms" and papers called "Benefits of Using Compost Tea for Orchards with Loamy Soil." The first paper example is expository, merely informative, and the intended audience is most likely high school students. The second paper is argumentative, offers an educated opinion about the topic, and is most likely meant for agricultural professionals or serious hobbyists. The information the student gathers for the first paper will be general, not necessarily peer-reviewed or academic: The sources might be blog posts or articles from general interest gardening magazines. The information the student gathers for the second paper will be academic, come from library subscription service databases and Google Scholar, and most likely will be peer-reviewed.

The Rubric

By offering a rubric for the students to see before the paper is due, a professor lets the students know right away what's important. The rubric can even be divided into categories that may mimic what students have learned in composition courses. The qualities of unity (sticking to the topic overall and main ideas within paragraphs), coherence (order and flow), and clarity (grammar and mechanics) are almost always taught in freshman composition, and when combined with the categories of content (accuracy and use of evidence) and formatting (use of an appropriate style guide), just about all aspects of a paper can be covered on the rubric.

  • Unity - The thesis, topic sentences, and evidence have alignment and are relevant to one another without being repetitive
  • Coherence - The information is presented in a logical order with smooth transitions
  • Clarity - Grammar and mechanics are used correctly
  • Content - Evidence is interesting, accurate, timely, relevant, credible, authoritative, and on-topic; all claims have evidence in support
  • Formatting - The student has followed the rules of an appropriate style guide

Faculty who appreciate detailed titles or who are adamant about APA formatting can address those points on the rubric by assigning, well . . . points. If the professor wants a thesis or enthymeme to appear in the introduction of the paper, that can be listed on the rubric, too, maybe even under the unity category. Students will know right away these particular items are important and can spend time and energy focused on those parts of the paper. The more descriptive the rubric, the better the betters will be, and the easier it will be for the professor to stay focused and on task while grading.

The Example

One of the best ways to explain to students what faculty are looking for in papers is to show students examples of those types of papers. This is exceptionally important for students who are just learning to write in a particular discipline or in a particular mode (exposition, persuasion/argumentation, description, or narration). By carefully pointing out how a particular example meets the assignment requirements and rubric items with proficiency, students can more confidently begin their own writing. If students begin to stray or have questions about the quality of their writing later in the process, the example or a second example can be given again to help demonstrate the qualities.

In addition to the qualities, faculty and even offer an example of the step-by-step process with a schedule or timeline, which can greatly reduce the anxiety of students who are not well-practiced in time management or writing and research.

Satisfaction and Success

When writing your assignment sheets, think carefully about the rhetorical situation you want the students to envision, the qualities of the writing that are most important to you, and how examples of the assignment meet your requirements. Not only will this bring you more personal satisfaction as you grade the papers, but the students will have been more successful in learning how to write in the given discipline.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Cro-Tatting Rows of Rings: Split Rings and Stacked Rings

Cro-Tatted Split Rings on the Left and Stacked Rings on the Right

There are two main methods for creating rows of rings when cro-tatting. The first, making split rings, is very similar to how we make split rings in needle tatting. We use the split ring method when we want to make several split rings in a row. The second method is stacked rings. We use the stacked ring method when we need to make only two or three rings in a row.

How to Cro-Tat Split Rings

The trick to making split rings in cro-tatting is to create a second working ball, a continuous ball, that will stay on the tail side of the cro-tatting hook. A row of split rings starts with a first, complete ring. In this example, the pattern for all the rings is 3-3-3-3, or 3 double stitches (ds), picot (p), 3ds, p, 3ds, p, 3 ds.

1. After closing the first ring, start the split rings by casting on the left side of the second ring: 3-3.

2. Flip the hook so that your "main" hook, or working end, is now on the right and the tail is now on the left.

3. Cast on the second half of the split ring using the tail thread, 3-3.

4. Flip the hook so that the main hook is back on the left side and the tail is back on the right side.

5. Close the ring as usual. I added a crochet chain stitch between my rings.

How to Cro-Tat Stacked Rings

The second method, stacked rings, does not require a long tail thread. However, we use stitch markers or an alternate color thread to mark where we'll exit the "pull through" to create a ring atop another ring. Again, this method should only be used when making two or three rings on a row. We cannot add a chain stitch between rings using this method.

1. The first step is to cast on the first half of the 3rd ring, 3-3, the first half of the second ring, 3-3, and in this example, the complete first ring, 3-3-3-3. We have room on this hook to create a fourth or fifth ring, but it does become more difficult to count and close rings.

2. The second step is to place stitch markers between the first half of the third and second rings, and between the half of the second ring and the complete first ring.

3. After placing the markers, close only the first ring by pulling through to the first stitch marker, then exiting the double stitches.

4. Tighten the ring using fingers or a second small hook. Remove the stitch marker.

5. Cast on the second half of the second ring, 3-3.

6. Close the second ring by pulling through to the second marker and tightening the loops using fingers or a second hook. Remove the stitch marker.

7. Cast on the second half of the third ring, 3-3.

8. Tighten the third ring as usual.

Choosing Split Rings or Stacked Rings

Tatting patterns often call for split rings. When adapting tatting patterns for cro-tatting, we can certainly imitate the needle tatting method for split rings or create stacked rings in order to complete the pattern as long as the pattern does not require a chain stitch between the rings. Simply remember that split rings require a substantial amount of tail thread, and stacked rings could also be substituted if the pattern requires only two or three rings in a row.

Want to read more about arts and crafts? Try

Make a Celtic Tatting Shuttle
The Susan Bates Tatting Shuttle with Bobbin
A Brief Introduction to Crochet Hooks

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The KonMari Syllabus: Teaching Less and Learning More

Is it time to declutter your syllabus?
"Graphics Class" by Ryan Johnson used with Creative Commons License.

Just in time for many of us to start thinking about our next semester's classes and syllabi, Marie Kondo's Netflix premier, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, blew up. Love it or hate it, her KonMari method of sorting out those things in our lives that do not "spark joy" sparks conversation.

After watching the entire first season of the show and attacking my own closet and bookshelves with gusto, I started thinking about the gigantic boxes of books and papers waiting for me to unpack in my new office on campus. Too stymied by the thought to actually do anything about that particular problem, I addressed something honestly even more frightening, creating a new syllabus for a new class with new time limitations.

I opened my laptop and perseverated for an entire afternoon, making and unmaking changes. By the time 7 pm rolled around, I had accomplished nothing, so I gave up and ate supper with Marie on Netflix. The following morning I attacked my lists of graded assignments and in-class activities with gusto previously unparalleled. I owe some of that to the energy created by Marie Kondo series and some of that to my return looking into a "less is more" approach in current pedagogical theory.

Teach Fewer Topics and Students Learn More Deeply

I was first introduced to the idea of "less is more" by Nicki Monahan, MEd. Monahan published an article in October of 2015 called "More Content Doesn't Equal More Learning," a title that excellently sums up the thesis. The article focuses on the idea that as we develop our syllabi we keep in mind "threshold concepts" and our roles as "content curators" who, instead of deciding "'what' to  teach,"should focus on "'how' to facilitate learning." One scenario the author suggests for paring down class activities and topics is to think about a chance meeting with a student several years after graduation: What would you want the student to still know or know how to do?  As Marie Kondo might suggest, what answers could that hypothetical student provide that would "spark joy" for us as faculty? Those answers become the backbone of our lectures, planned activities, and graded assignments.

Breadth Versus Depth 

Another view of this tension between having a lot of content on the syllabus and covering only "threshold concepts" is referred to as "breadth versus depth," a tension especially felt by faculty who are responsible for teaching survey courses meant to cover a great breadth of knowledge, none of it necessarily in great depth. Although researchers have found benefits in teaching a great breadth of knowledge, teaching a great depth of knowledge is shown to correlate to higher order thinking, or the synthesis and application levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy (Coker, Heiser, Taylor, & Book, 2017). With these benefits as well as others discussed in context of active learning methods, like experiential learning and problem-based courses, I became convinced that decluttering my content was the right choice.

Asking Difficult Questions

After revisiting this research topic when I started revising my syllabus, I started asking myself some tough questions about my course content. Strangely enough, I was asking the same questions about my course content as I was asking about my belongings.

  • Am I hanging onto this piece of pottery because of nostalgia, and is it still serving me and my family? I love pottery, but is this piece of pottery worth having? Would we appreciate it more if it were the only piece of pottery on the shelf?
  • Am I hanging onto this topic because of nostalgia, and is it still serving me and my students? I love The Things They Carried, but is covering it in an hour and a half really doing it justice? Would we appreciate it more if it were the only reading before midterm?
I think the answers to both these question sets, at least for me, are that we will appreciate what's there more abundantly and more deeply if there is less there.


Whether or not we can agree on the importance of decluttering our homes, or come to a complete understanding of what it means for a pair of utilitarian work pant to "spark joy," what those of us who teach may certainly be able to agree on is that decluttering our syllabi is a worthwhile endeavor. We must force ourselves to keep only those "threshold concepts" and skills that will "spark joy" in us when we realize more students understand those important ideas more deeply.


Coker, J. S., Heiser, E., Taylor, L., & Book, C. (2017). Impacts of Experiential Learning Depth and Breadth on Student Outcomes. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(1), 5–23.

Monahan, N. (2015, October 12). More Content Doesn't Equal More Learning. Retrieved from

Want to read more about pedagogy and learning? Try

Learning Community Classroom Design
Active Learning Classroom Design and Pedagogy
Contemplative Education: Modeling Mindfulness in the Classroom

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.