Assignment-In-Lieu of Class

Last week, we had another snowstorm. It is February, after all, in New York. I was unable to get out of my neighborhood to get to my 9 am class. Since we don’t have snow days or make up days at Vassar, I thought long and hard about how to keep my class engaged with the course material and not lose that class session. My first thought was to have class the first hour of my four hour laboratory session with them the next day, but I quickly dismissed this idea. It’s hard enough for the class to stay focused throughout the lab session. It was just be torture to have a class session on top of that! Arranging for a make up on a Saturday or an evening is less than ideal as well because I cannot require folks to attend.

I decided to have them do a short “Assignment-in-lieu of Class”. My original plan for class was to form small groups to discuss an experimental paper on sensory plasticity. After the small group discussions, guided by questions I had prepared in advance, I was then going to have a brainstorming session, discussing new experimental ideas and questions to explore arising out of the study we had just considered. Why not have them do this very thing, but as a short, guided, writing assignment instead?

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It occurred to me, as I emailed the class the idea and my expectations for it- that it take no longer than our class meeting time of 75 min- that the snow day had given me a wonderful pedagogical opportunity! Students could take a little time to reflect on the experimental paper and then integrate and link that close reading work with a more creative thinking approach to the process of discovery in neuroscience.

This kind of writing assignment is referred to as “Writing to Learn” in the educational literature. The primary function is to “talk to yourself,” to put into words the thinking about a concept or topic. I do this all the time in my own work. I find that writing down my own version of what I’ve read or thought about really helps with my level of understanding. As professors, we often assign short papers like response papers or reflective summaries, but always in addition to the classroom experience, or as a result of the classroom experience. Students can lean on the work done in class to inform their writing. As a stand-alone, the students must think thing through independently, without the guidance provided by the classroom.

from: Calvin and Hobbes Collection

The idea is that the learning takes place while doing the assignment, rather than the assignment be a demonstration of learning that has already occurred (such as with an exam).

Yesterday in class, I included the material the students learned on their own and we had a full and rich class discussion. In reading their writings, the students seemed to have indeed learned the material and accomplished the goals I set out for them. I don’t think this means that we never need to hold class, but it is a successful strategy for when you can’t make it to class.

Here’s a useful website with a variety of writing-to-learn ideas:

The long-term forecast is for more snow …….any other ideas? How about for when you can’t make it to the lab session??

I think I might actually PLAN to do something like this in my next course.