Low Effort, High Impact

September 28, 2016 / By: Dr. Erika Scheurer, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum/Associate Professor of English

Dr. Erika Scheurer, Director of Writing Across the CurriculumWe’re all feeling increasing pressures on our time (another meeting, anyone?). On these occasions, I find it helpful to consider the relationship between the effort we expend on a pedagogical practice and the value of the outcome.

We all know about pedagogies that are “High Effort, High Impact”—community engagement, study abroad, course flipping, paired and co-teaching, Writing Across the Curriculum, etc. They require a lot of us, but offer tremendous return in student engagement and learning.

Lately I’ve been thinking of another category to complement my more high effort endeavors: “Low Effort, High Impact.” I suspect that, like me, some of you may be looking for some pedagogical practices that resonate strongly in terms of student learning, but don’t require quite so much time and effort on your part. Here are a few examples of low effort, high impact classroom practices that have worked for me:

  • Ungraded in-class private writing. Having students do five minutes of private freewriting at the start of each class is low effort for me in that all I need to do is keep the time and freewrite along with the class. Sometimes I’ll use the freewriting to re-think and improve my class plan for the day or brainstorm about an upcoming writing project (such as a Synergia column). Aside from gaining added fluency from the regular writing practice, my students, for their part, rave about how freewriting relieves stress and helps them focus their minds for class. As the semester goes on, if I get distracted and forget about the freewriting, they remind me. It becomes that important to them.
  • Ungraded in-class shared writing. Notice the “ungraded” theme…. A more focused form of in-class writing that falls into this category is having students keep a private learning journal. Once or twice a week I will carve out a few minutes of class for them to reflect on some aspect of the subject matter or on their reading or writing processes. I invite them to share (if they are willing) and ask them to review their journals at mid-term and the end of the semester as fodder for a reflective essay on the progress of their thinking. Key: I never read these journals. Yet the students derive a great deal of benefit from reflecting on what they are learning (in fact, it also helps them to see that they are learning).
  • One minute of mindfulness meditation. Like freewriting, taking a minute for mindfulness practice at the start of class leaves students (and me) much more focused, calm, and ready to learn. To go with the “low effort” part, I keep it extremely simple, limiting my role to time-keeper and offering very little direction. For the first class or two, I briefly explain the goal: to actually exist in the present moment instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, which is how we usually spend our lives. Once students are used to it, I might begin with a phrase such as “For the next minute, you don’t have to be anywhere but here. You don’t have to do anything but this: breathe.”
    As the semester gets busier the students usually request more time for meditation and I am happy to give it. At times, my faculty colleagues have looked askance at me when I describe this practice; nowadays, the students rarely do. Many students have experienced mindfulness in their previous education, in sports, through music training, etc.  Just this semester, the four students in my class who are on the football team nodded with familiarity when we meditated for the first time.
  • Cover letters: Every time students submit a draft for feedback to me or to their peers, I ask them to write a cover letter explaining the ups and downs of their writing process; substantial revisions they have made; and where they feel the draft meets the goals of the assignment and the expectations set out in the rubric and where more work is required. They then ask specific questions to guide the feedback they will receive from the letter recipient. The questions must show they have thought about their drafts and cannot be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no.” Cover letters compel students to re-read the assignment and rubric. Even more importantly, have a way of pushing students to take responsibility for their writing: taking the writerly perspective by asking “Please tell me if the third paragraph on pg. 2 shows adequate evidence for my claim,” and not the more limited perspective of a student who might otherwise say “Tell me if it’s good.” All I do with cover letters is check them off as done according to directions. Bonus: when I focus on the specific questions students ask about their drafts, I don’t spend so much time on feedback.
  • Extra credit for visiting the Center for Writing or participating in Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation events. I resisted the concept of extra credit for years; I would rather the students just did the work I assigned for class. But recently my colleagues have convinced me that students just love extra credit opportunities and that we can craft them to meet and extend our goals as instructors. Extra credit opportunities inviting students to visit the Center for Writing with a paper draft or to attend a session offered by the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation have proved especially impactful for my students and connect directly to my course goals. The students write one-page reflections on their experiences and all I need to do is read them quickly and check off that they were completed.

I’m sure that you all know plenty more pedagogical practices that fall into the “Low Effort, High Impact” category. They may be specific to your use of writing in your classes or more generally applicable. Please send me descriptions and I will share them in my February column!