Outside of Class Learning Activities: 4th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

This is the fifth in a series of about six very long blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching written with the straight forward goal –> to provide busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.   The firstsecondthird, and fourth blog posts are available online.

Traditionally, college students learn astronomy by attending about 45 hours of class, where they listen to a professor talk about astronomy and memorize the notes they’ve taken in order to pass the course exams.  Given that we are talking about an astronomically large range of topics when studying the Universe, it probably isn’t surprising that students can achieve more if they work on learning astronomy outside of class time too.


5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

Unfortunately, simply telling students to “be sure to study tonight after class” is insufficient for most college students.  Like it or not, students need very specific tasks to complete—and be held accountable for—if you want students to engage in astronomy outside of class meeting times.  Let’s consider several homework options you need to choose from for helping your students to continue to learn astronomy when you’re not in front of them during

      I Don’t Have Time to Grade Homework

Before you dismiss these ideas about out of class assignments because you don’t have time, let’s first deal with the YEAHBUTs that inevitably are presented as a barrier to holding students accountable for doing academic work outside of class.  A YEAHBUT—pronounced ya-ah-But with both enthusiasm and a bit of indignation—is the list of “Yes, but …” excuses and rationalizations for why something can’t be done.


  • yeahbutYEAHBUT my students won’t do anything that isn’t graded
  • YEAHBUT my students won’t read the book outside of class.
  • YEAHBUT my students are terrible writers, and I don’t want to grade grammar and sentence syntax
  • YEAHBUT I don’t have time to grade homework
  • YEAHBUT I don’t have graduate students to grade the homework for me
  • YEAHBUT I don’t want to negatively impact my end-of-term course evaluations by giving homework
  • YEAHBUT I don’t know what I would have students do outside of class

      High Performance Grading Solution

Let’s first solve the YEAHBUT I don’t have time to grade concern. Some of the biggest concerns secretly harbored by all professors revolve around assessing student work, giving students grades, and how to manage the overall process of receiving, scoring, recording, and returning student work.  There is no question that the grading process can be incredibly time consuming; but, we also know from repeated studies that giving students frequent feedback is one of the most critical aspects of helping them monitor their learning and improve their achievement.  The bottom line is that grading really is important.

For me, probably the most frustrating thing I ever encounter is, after spending long hours marking and correcting a set of student papers, seeing far too many of my students take a few seconds to look at what I have written on their paper and then depositing it immediately into the trash can.  The point of my writing unanswered questions in the margins, leaving encouraging notes at the end of the paper, and carefully calculating a score is to help students improve.  However, I am now convinced that this time consuming task doesn’t always have nearly the positive impact I intend it to have.  So what is the busy teacher to do?  My suggestion is to supercharge your grading system to focus on informing students the degree to which their performances are meeting your expectations and whether or not students need to spend a few minutes discussing their work with you personally, all the while simultaneously decreasing the time you spend marking on student papers dramatically.

I most often use a rapid scoring system that I loosely call, “High Performance Grading.”  In this system, I only write one of four numbers on students’ papers, as shown in Figure 1.  When I give students a score of “2,” this is telling them that their performance is meeting my expectations for this particular assignment.  Their work does not need to be error free to earn a “2”, but errors are minor ones, such as a units, calculation or sign errors.  When I give students a score of “1,” this is telling them that there are some major errors or omissions that need to be corrected.  I my old system of grading, these would be the sorts of errors where I would take time to write notes to the student in the page margin which I had hoped they would critically read, internalize, and improve on future assignments.  These are the same notes that I am now convinced rarely had the impact which I hoped that they would.  For a “1” score, I expect students to come see me, even if it is just for a minute or two.  In this case, students are asked to look at the key before coming to see me and then they convince me they that they understand their errors or I can give them the guidance that they need.  This happens in less time than it takes me to write them a note and I can usually ask probing questions to see if they are building a correct conceptual model.

Finally, I use a “0” score to indicate that students did not complete the assignment in a meaningful way or inform them that their work implies conceptual problems that are going to take longer than a few minutes to sort out.

2-1-0 Scoring Key

Score 2:  Your work is essentially correct and free of most major errors.  Your work is meeting my expectations.  You should quickly check the posted answer key and resolve any differences that might exist.

Score 1:  Your work is missing some important components or has some important errors that need to be resolved before you can progress.  Please take a careful look at the posted answer key and then arrange a few minutes to talk individually with me as soon as possible.

Score 0:  Your work was not submitted according to the directions or no meaningful attempt is evident in your work.  Please see me as soon as possible.

Score 3:  Your work is unusually exemplary and goes far beyond my expectations for this particular assignment.  This score is rarely assigned and you should be very proud of your efforts.

Important NoteStudents should strive to earn a “2-score” on every assignment.  A consistent “2-score” will earn an A for this portion of the grade.  Please do not assume that a 2-score represents a 67% grade or that a 1-score represents a 33% grade; rather, the scores are intended to describe the degree to which students are meeting performance expectations.

I also reserve the right to assign students a score of “3.”  I use this score very, very rarely to reward highly distinguished work.  This score doesn’t really help students’ grade point average, but it does reward students that have submitted work that is more than just correct, but work that goes far above what I would expect.  In other words, their performance is above the level that I intended them to reach.  I find that I do need to continually emphasize to my strongest students that they should be striving for a score of “2” and that a score of “3” isn’t given commonly nor is it necessary to improve their course grade.

There are two important caveats to using this “High Performance Grading” system.  The first is that you need to frequently remind students what the scores mean.  Their automatic inclination is to convert the score into a percentage grade out of 100—yes, even the students who tell you they can’t actually do math all of a sudden can analyze fractions and percentages.  Students will say, “Hey, why did I get a 2 out of 3 on this assignment when I did it right—that’s a failing 67%!”  When this occurs, you have to remind them again what a score of “2” actually means and reassure them that they are still earning an A.

The second caveat is that you need to clearly identify how these scores will be translated into students’ grades.  A professor has considerable flexibility in how this is actually done, but for me, if I have 10 assignments for a unit, I tell students they earn:  100% if ten assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; 80% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; a 70% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have some 1 or 0-scores; and a 50% if they have five or less 2-scores.  Most computer-based grading programs can be easily set up to automatically count the frequency of various scores.

High Performance Grading is about creating an efficient feedback system for students so that they can more frequently know to degree to which they are meeting your performance expectations for competency.  I find that I am willing to give more assignments because my time allocated for grading isn’t nearly as intense as it was before I adopted this system.  This system also has the benefit of eradicating “grade grubbing” complaints.  I rarely ever have students complain about the scores they are assigned as long as I keep the range of possible scores small.  I would wager that I would get more complaints if I expanded to a five point system.  The bottom line with this approach is to be sure students earn a grade that is consistent with how often they are meeting your performance expectations for each assignment.

In the end, this should not be your only grading scheme.  There are times, particularly at the of the semester, when students need to be provided a more formal and detailed evaluation, particularly in order to spread out a range of student grades more than can be done with a three-point scoring rubric. No single grading technique is appropriate for something as incredibly complex as the measurement of learning.  However, I have found that High Performance Grading is an important and efficient part of a much larger system for grading and assigning student grades that is easy to implement.  Most importantly, my students seem to regard it as a fair and useful feedback system.

Now, with the YEAHBUTs slayed, back to our story

Reading Summaries

Students should be learning material from your textbook.  Learning from written text is a skill that all 21st Century college students need to master across numerous contexts, and mastery takes practice.  Nothing helps students learn from text better than challenging them to rephrase the main ideas in their own words and create summaries of their reading.

For some time now, a national movement in teaching has been bubbling along under the general banner of “writing across the curriculum.”  The underlying philosophy is that an ongoing emphasis on having students write improves learning and that only by practicing the conventions of an academic discipline will students begin to communicate effectively within that discipline.  At some colleges and universities, students are expected to take a minimum number of courses designated “writing intensive” where students are to produce a certain number of written words over the duration of a course.

As a first response, we might be tempted to simply assign students the task of creating a term paper and consider our contribution to students’ writing growth completed.  Unfortunately, repeated experience has shown that, without considerable guidance and mentoring, students do not often create laudable scientific term papers.  This is most certainly highly dependent on context—even students who write exceptionally well in the context of an English composition course do not necessarily transfer their writing skills automatically into the scientific classroom.  Furthermore, science faculty often scoff at the idea that they need to correct students’ spelling and use of grammar in their written work.  In the end, faculty and students seem to be disappointed with the outcome and term paper assignments in introductory science survey courses are often abandoned to the great relief of everyone involved.

Generally, faculty who have had success with improving student learning through writing tasks find that the best writing activities are short or impromptu writing tasks that help students work through key concepts. Often, the most successful writing tasks are limited to less than fifteen minutes of writing time brief, homework assignments.  When assigned during class time, this provides faculty with the opportunity to step out from behind the lectern and observe students’ thinking.  The advantage here is that when student thinking is made explicit to the instructor, this information can be used to guide and target instruction.  Furthermore, when students’ own thinking is made explicitly to the students themselves, this can trigger students’ own metacognitive skills which in turn can lead to developing deeper understanding of ideas as well.

One of the easiest strategies to get students to start writing is to require students to bring a paragraph-long written summary of the big ideas from an outside of class reading assignment.  Asking students to abbreviate and summarize textbook material has the double-dip impact of requiring students to actually complete a reading assignment as well as work at higher cognitive levels by creating their own synthesis of another author’s work.

Instead of “submit a 200-word typed synopsis of the key ideas in the assigned chapter in your own words” try assigning “bring a 75-word hand-written summary of section x.y to class”

To make the assignment slightly more light hearted, I often roll a pair of six-sided dice at the beginning of class to determine if students need to submit their work for grading. I often collect student work if the total number of dots on the dice are even; but, do not if the number is odd.  The end result is that I only have to grade and record assignments about one-half of the time.

End-of-Chapter Questions

In most traditional junior and senior level physics courses, submitting answers to back of the book questions is quite common.  I’d ask, why not do this in introductory astronomy courses too?  Some author spent considerable time creating those end-of-chapter questions and you might as well use them!

Just like in introductory physics textbooks, there is tremendous market pressure on textbook authors to include many more end-of-chapter questions than can any single student can possibly have time or energy to answer.  So, you’ll need to pick and choose which questions students should answer rather than assigning all of them.  I will often assign students to answer the even-numbered questions—I used to ask students to submit answers to odd questions, but I received far too many clarification questions from students about what constitutes an odd or unusual question.

No matter what you choose, the most important idea is that what you ask students to do needs to be clearly, obviously, and unquestionably reflected on your exams.  Perhaps surprisingly, students are perfectly happy to do outside of class work IF and ONLY IF it is clear that doing so improves their ability to earn a higher grade in your course, and specifically, if it improves their exam grades.  Where faculty get negative scores on their end-of-course evaluations from students is if students perceive that they were assigned what they consider to be busy work that didn’t impact their grade.

Therefore, you must, with no exceptions, have at least a few exam questions that are verbatim from your out-of-class homework tasks.  Before you say that’s not fair or rigorous or is dumbing down the course, let me point out that you don’t need to have a lot of these questions, but a sufficient number for students to recognize on their own that doing and understanding the homework really makes a difference in their exam performance.  Remember, at the end of the term, students will be judging you specifically on if you constructed an organized pathway that helped them learn in your course, and this is a great way to do this.

Given the rapidly growing abundance of online homework systems, I should probably say a few words about these.  Personally, I am agnostic about if they are better than traditional homework assignments.  I was deeply involved in the development of several of these online homework systems, my motivation being that too many professors won’t bother to assign much needed homework unless there was an automatic grading system available.  So, my bottom line is that if it is a choice between assigning homework using an online homework system and not assigning any substantive homework at all, then by all means assign online homework.  Students need to devote out-of-class time to learning astronomy.  If you are trying to make a choice between online homework and traditional homework, I personally don’t have a strong opinion.  However, many of my friends do hold strong opinions!

Master ASTRO 101 professor Julia Kregenow from Penn State, who always has well considered thoughts about such things, emphatically says:


Julia Kregenow, Penn State

I love online homework. Since I teach a very large class without much grading help, I use almost exclusively objective questions that can be autograded instantly upon submission. Students love getting their grade right away. Moreover, I’ve set it up so that they get two attempts at the assignment, and only the higher grade counts. They LOOOOOOVE that too. It gives them a safe way to make mistakes, they get feedback, and they use the feedback right away. They can see which problems they got right and wrong the first time, and I often reveal hints that help them if they got one wrong, but not the answer key (until after the due date). If they want to take advantage of a second try (the vast majority do), they have to answer all the questions again. I’m very happy with this approach, both for learning and for student attitudes. 

I started out with Mastering Astronomy about 9 years ago, and it was alright. They had a huge library of questions to dig through, which was time consuming, but once I invested that time I had a nice set of problems I liked. It was easy to reuse them each semester. I’m really picky about my questions and their wording though, and back then it was a pain to edit the questions and/or add your own. I’ve heard it’s better now.


When I changed institutions to a place that used a pretty comprehensive course management system (CMS), where all my colleagues gave online multiple choice homeworks of their own design right through the CMS, I jumped on board and started doing that as well. Over the course of a few years, I gradually built up a set of questions I liked. I started out with just a few questions on each assignment, but as I thought of (or found) questions I liked, I’d add them. Now I’m up to 10-20 questions per weekly assignment.

I also use the in-class lecture-tutorials. One type of question I started including on my HWs is a few select questions from the lecture tutorials we do in class, but recast as multiple choice questions. e.g. “Look at the student debate on pg. X. Which student(s) do you agree with, if either? A. student 1 only  B. student 2 only   C. both 1 and 2   D. neither .  Since I don’t collect or grade the LTs, this is one way for students to check select answers. Also, it gives them a little added incentive to work hard on the worksheets in class: they are getting a head start on their HW.

It is hard to argue with logic like that.

Context-Rich Term Papers

Probably the biggest mistake one can make is to simply assign students to write a 5-page, typed, term-paper or research-report on the topic of their choice.  Years and years of experience shows that this is a painful experience for everyone involved, especially the professor.  The traditional term paper assignment definitely falls under the category of, “when you wrestle a pig, all that happens is you get dirty and annoy the pig.”

For one, the easily available “term paper for purchase” websites makes any traditional term paper dubious.  For another, these things take forever to grade and, if you are curious about many students’ ability to write expository text that is pleasant to read, you will likely be sorely disappointed. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, but most of my ASTRO 101 peeps have abandoned this assignment.  Most importantly, for the professor who is trying to score high marks on the end-of-term evaluation, it is difficult to convince students that such a task directly and demonstrably improves their exam performance which negatively impacts your scores.

There are numerous educational studies reporting that students learn better and deeper with more duration if they have devoted effort to writing about a topic. If you are deeply committed to having your students write about astronomy, there are some really good options available to you.

 Locally Relevant Tasks

The best approach a professor can use to beat the companies who are selling term-papers is to select topics that can’t possibly be replicated by people outside of your class.  Coming up with these tasks requires some creativity, but here are some examples to stimulate your thinking.  The bottom line here is to think about what people outside of your class couldn’t possibly do.


We aren’t going to be able to cover chapter 9 or 11 in this class, but if we were, provide and explain which five astronomical images you recommend including in a PowerPoint slide sets that covers the material in one of those chapters, that are NOT already in the textbook

  • When you visited the observatory (or planetarium), you observed five objects. Select one of those objects and write a description five important ideas or characteristics you would explain to your family if you could show them that particular object.
  • In preparation for the final exam, select five questions from a previous exam, and re-write them altered for possible inclusion in the final examination. Be sure to include the correct answer for each and an explanation for why it is correct.

Scaffolded Writing Tasks

For novice, non-science majoring undergraduates, big assignments are best done if they are broken up into smaller chunks submitted throughout the term. For one, which was alluded to earlier, imagine that one of your big course goals is for students to enjoy astronomy news.  Learning research tells us that simply telling students to “go read and like astronomy news” is insufficient.  Instead, you need to teach them how to read and enjoy astronomy news by providing a carefully constructed sequence of progressively scaffolded learning experiences.

In the course of a 16-week semester, we judge that there is only time for students to do five assignments in preparation for ramping up for an end-of-term, final paper demonstrating their enjoyment and interest in astronomy news. We propose the following illustrative set of experiences:

hand-outline-clip-art.png(1) select an article and describe why it is directly relevant;

(2) write a brief summary of an article, different than the first article you selected;

(3) discern between two articles given to you by your instructor which one is scientifically-based and which one is pseudo-science or junk science;

(4) write a personal reaction to an article or your choosing you haven’t read before; and finally

(5) create an hypothetical 200-300 word news release/article for a new hypothetical scientific discovery.

We suggest a two week spacing of each assignment starting at week number one so that we would have sufficient time to students them feedback before they started on end-of-term papers. One appealing aspect of this approach is that students are engaging with at least five different articles or source materials, with specific and narrowly defined tasks to attend to with each article, each increasing in intellectual complexity.

The advantage of scaffolding approaches are that they teach students to successfully engage in science journalism, in both a bitesize and critical way.

Context Rich Problem Sets

The reason that previous generations of professors assigned a term-paper on a topic of the student’s choosing was to help students gain some degree of ownership in the task.  Although well intended, it seldom worked. However, this notion of designing assignments where students can obtain some ownership in the assignment is a useful one.

What if instead of defining the assignment, students are able to choose the variables? Such questions result in multiple-correct answers, which give students something valuable to discuss when they compare answers.  Let’s consider some comparative examples:

Traditional Questions

Context-Rich Questions

How long does it take light to travel 3.5 AU? How long would it take to fly a commercial jet plane from Venus to Mars, if you could?
Convert 25°F to Celsius? On a hot summer day on Mars, does it get warmer than it is in this room? Explain.
Of this list of 20-brightest stars, which has the greatest luminosity? Which star in your favorite constellation emits the most energy?
What is the diameter of largest crater on the Moon? If this building was sitting on the edge of the lunar crater Copernicus, near what place would the far side be?

What these questions all have in common is that students will get different answers depending on the variables they select or the estimates they make.  This is what makes these questions worthy of the descriptor “context-rich.” These sort of context-rich questions have the added benefit of not having answers readily available by searching the Internet.

Observing Logs & Field-Trips

Although we’ve spent the majority of time talking about doing astronomy inside the classroom, it seems incomplete to not discuss going outside to learn astronomy.  Although many ASTRO 101 professors are not able to take their students outside because they teach at a commuter campus where students do not return in the evenings, a well-lit inner city campus, a school without telescopes, or any number of reasons.  But, if you are able to take your students outside, there are some steps you can take to make the experience as productive as possible.  The most important attribute is that students need to create something tangible in the learning process, rather than simply just experience it.

      Observing Logs

It is difficult to argue against the inherent value of taking students outside to look through a telescope.  Many professors fondly remember the first time they looked at the rings of Saturn or the aligned moons orbiting Jupiter, and professors naturally would like to have their students enjoy a similar experience.  As it turns out, simply looking through a telescope is usually an insufficient experience to positively impact a professor’s end-of-term student evaluations.  Just looking through a telescope is often perceived by students as an “add-on” experience that doesn’t improve their performance on exams and too often can be considered busy work.  Disappointing, I know, but that’s the reality of teaching non-science majoring undergraduates.

observinglog      To mitigate for this, I suggest that you ask students to “do something” at the telescope.  If you have enough time, the absolute best thing to do is to have students sketch what they see in the telescope.  Sketching Jupiter’s belts or the Moon’s craters makes students allocate just enough extra-time at the eyepiece to be able to have a meaningful learning experience.

You do need to give students instructions—and perhaps practice in class—on how to sketch an object.  Some students will be quite anxious about this and some practice in class will help reduce any anxiety.  I suggest that you show students a fuzzy image of the Moon or of Mars and show students how to repeatedly move clock-wise around the image adding first very obvious characteristics and then adding more and more detail with each pass.

Moreover, sketching encourages students to detect and identify subtleties that they wouldn’t often notice just glancing at an object.  Finally, on the next exam, I’d include at least one question, simply as it seems, on matching sketches of objects observed to their name or some other characteristic about it, just to emphasize the importance of telescope observations. Really.

     Field Trips

Like when observing at a telescope, visiting a planetarium, museum, or observatory visitors’ center is best remembered by students when they have something intellectual and specific to do there.  This starts with clearly helping students understand the goal of a field-trip.  Let’s consider two possible goals:

FIELD TRIP GOAL A:  Go visit the planetarium and look at the displays before entering.


FIELD TRIP GOAL B:  How do astronomers capture light?

What is the substantive difference between these two goals?  In one case the goal is simply to go and experience.  As it turns out, for students to value the experience, and report it as being valuable on your end-of-term evaluations, students need to know precisely what they are supposed to learn by engaging in this experience.  The second goal is a learning goal, one that can be measured on an exam, and one that can be repeatedly emphasized during the field-trip and supported by specific tasks.

kittpeakvisitorscenter      What sort of specific tasks should students be doing during a field trip?  The time tested approach here is to have students write, sketch, and reflect on things that they see and experience, usually through a worksheet.  The standard time-tested method here is to provide students with a task list of things to do and sketch while they are visiting the facility.  But, all task sheets are not created equal.  Let’s compare and contrast two, illustrative field trip task sheets—the Scavenger Hunt and the Inquiry Guide.

TYPE 1: Scavenger Hunt TYPE 2: Inquiry Guide
1. In display case #1, what color is the shirt?  ___________ 1. Why do the objects in display case #2 fit naturally between cases #1 and #3?
2. In display case #2, what is the second word on the last explanation panel?  ___________ 2. What is missing in display case #1 that would complete the story?
3. In display case #3, which object do you like best? ___________ 3. If you were going to create a 4th display case, what would you build to follow display case #3? Explain.

The differences between the two hypothetical task lists are profound.  In one case, students are answering questions that require no thought whatsoever: This is busy work and not valued by students.  In the other case, students are having to intellectually engage with the exhibits in order to answer the questions.  The second list is definitely more rigorous, and more valued by students.  Remember, students value being DIFFERENT as a result of the learning experiences you have carefully designed for them.

□   On the next assignment you grade, try not writing any notes but giving students a 0, 1, or 2 score and telling students what to do if they receive a 1 or a 2.  Then, ask for feedback from students the next week.

□   Take the marketing video-tour of at least one online homework system that you haven’t used before.

□   Reconstruct one of the end-of-chapter homework questions to be a “context rich” question where students decide on their own variables

□   Ask students to sketch an astronomical image in class this week.  Show them how to do this.

□   Next time you take your students outside the classroom, ask them to create something that goes home with them to solidify the experience.


Earlier posts in this series are:

The anticipated upcoming posts in this innovative college astronomy series are:

  • A Win-Win Syllabus: 5th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations



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