Director’s Blog

What Does Success Look Like?

by | May 27, 2021 | Director's Blog

While I know we are all dragging ourselves toward the finish line of spring quarter, I also feel less dread about the future. It seems like fall will be better as we navigate towards in-person classes again. And that has me thinking about a question I’ve always posed in workshops: What does success look like in your course? This is a question both for the instructor to consider as well as for students. I often find there’s a disconnect between what the instructor expects and what the students understand. With a return to the classroom this fall, this question feels especially important.

Another version of this question is: What does done look like? When you assign a paper, a lab, or project, do students know what a successful version of these things looks like? What are the elements of a successful presentation? What does an “A” paper include? We often lay out the directions for an assignment, but this merely covers what needs to be done, not necessarily how to do it well. And this can lead to students focusing on the wrong things. I have found that when students don’t know what a successful essay looks like, I get tons of questions about font size, margins, and page length. These are not my priority but students gravitate to what they understand and can control. So not knowing more about thesis statements, supporting evidence, etc, they focus on logistics instead.

An easy to way to address this is be more explicit about expectations and priorities. One of the best ways is to show students examples of good lab reports, art projects, or research papers. Spend some time in class going over the elements that makes this a successful assignment. Have students analyze and evaluate a sample assignment. A visual example will really help them focus on the most important elements. I think about this in my own work. When I’m applying for grants, I always check for past awarded grants as an example that will help inform my application. I attend webinars that discuss how to craft a successful proposal. I’m sure many of you do the same, so see if you can adopt these strategies for your courses.

When I present these options to faculty, I almost always get pushback. Many instructors fear that if you give students examples, they will just copy the examples. I understand this concern so here are my suggestions. First is don’t just hand students a sample assignment. You need to walk them through at least part of it so they understand why this is a successful example. Without that context, they will just copy it because they don’t understand it. Second is you may not need to show them an entire assignment. Maybe most students struggle with the literature review or using evidence. Show them those sections from an assignment and explain the elements of success. Or, do the opposite. I used to write really bad intro paragraphs and then go over them in class with my students. We discussed what made this a poor example and what needed to be changed. So if you can’t show them success, show them not-success. Finally, if you’re still hesitant about showing them examples, consider making a rubric or handout that details what an “A” assignment looks like, what a “B” assignment looks like, etc. What do they include? What do they leave out? Not only will this help students understand the grading scheme, it also gives you as the instructor the opportunity to review your own criteria and make sure it’s clear to both you and your students.

I think making success clear is going to be especially important in the fall. Students are moving to a different mode of teaching and learning. Some of them have never taken an in-person class at UCI! So I encourage all of you to take the time during the first week of classes to discuss what success looks like and give students the confidence they need.

In other news…

What I’m currently reading: I just finished Crying in H Mart, a memoir by Michelle Zauner which was excellent. Zauner tells the story of losing her Korean mother to cancer and connecting to her through culture and food. It’s touching and difficult while vividly describing the act of cooking and eating Korean food.

Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

Director, Faculty Instructional Development

Andrea Aebersold is the Director of Faculty Instructional Development at University of California, Irvine. She earned a PhD in English and was an associate professor of teaching before coming to UCI. She specializes in active learning, evidence-based teaching, and reading mountains of books.