Writing Papers

The most common active learning exercises are term papers and exams. These require students to work with course material in integrative ways that challenge them to conduct analysis, create synthesis, exercise judgment, and communicate effectively.

The development of effective writing assignments deserves careful thought. Even though TFs do not always have control over what course assignments will be, they can often play a significant role in shaping and explaining them. While the precise form of the assignment will vary according to field, student ability, and teaching style, it is important to consider several questions when designing or discussing writing tasks for your students: What is the purpose of the assignment, in relation to the overall goals of the course? What knowledge and skills do you want this assignment to develop? What types of secondary sources should be used? What logistical requirements (length, format, when and where to turn in the paper, etc.) do you want students to follow? Will there be opportunities for drafts and revisions? How will papers be evaluated? What is the course policy on extensions and late papers?

Take the time to explain course assignments carefully, especially the first one of the section. As a TF in the Department of Music explains: “Music is a very difficult thing for most people to write about intelligently. I learned after my first term teaching that I got far better papers when I took the time in class to go over the first assignment very carefully, illustrating what was necessary for success and generating a list of helpful questions for students to think about as they prepared to write the paper. Many more succeeded their first time around, and papers were far better and, of course, more enjoyable to read.”

In addition, there are other strategies for developing student writing. For example, some teachers ask students to submit a proposal for their essay before they start writing. A proposal takes only moments to read, and brief comments early in the process may forestall a misguided or directionless essay. If the course head allows or even recommends revision, you may also work with students on their drafts. Peer editing is another possibility; students can serve as each other’s editors and learn how to give constructive feedback.

The appendix features two useful forms, the Writing Self-Evaluation Form and the Peer Response Sheet, both of which can help students improve their own writing and offer feedback to others. Teaching fellows interested in further information and handouts on designing student assignments and proposals, or on instituting peer editing, should contact the Harvard Writing Project or the Bok Center.

Student Presentations

Some professors require students to make individual or group presentations in section. Even if this is not a course requirement, it may be a good way to involve your students. Some tips:

  • If student presentations do take place in your section, be sure to discuss with the presenter(s) well before class the main points to be raised.
  • Encourage a balance between the presentation of points from the readings and the students’ commentary or critique.
  • Remind students that the time limit on presentations will be strictly observed and help them plan accordingly. Suggest that they practice out loud before class and that they speak from notes rather than reading.
  • Sample Guidelines for Oral Reports in Section gives additional suggestions.

Evaluating Students

It is the course head’s responsibility to guide and oversee the grading process. Before students undertake graded work in a course, the professor or the TFs should explain clearly the basis for evaluating the students’ performance. (For example, does class participation count? What percentage of the final grade is each paper?) The TFs and course head must work together so that all TFs apply course standards fairly. Often in math and science, TFs do not grade their own students; instead, each teaching fellow will grade one or two questions on all the exams. In the humanities and social sciences, TFs may similarly share the grading of exam questions, but applying course wide standards fairly involves more individual judgment in these areas.

Often, to apply the same standards from one paper or exam question to another, it helps to read several papers or answers first to get a sense of the range of responses and establish a basis for comparison. To avoid prejudging student work, many TFs will hide the students’ names from view.

Ensuring that equitable standards are maintained across sections is very difficult and takes care. In large courses with many teaching fellows, ways of approaching fairness in evaluation vary. Sometimes the course head and the TFs discuss what an ideal answer must look like. Sometimes the course head or head teaching fellow may suggest that the usual grade curve of the course be reflected in the grading of each section. Teaching fellows must rely on the course head or head teaching fellow to be very clear, so that if people mark consistently high or low, grades can be adjusted. Some course heads will ask to read all the examinations or papers with unsatisfactory or marginal grades to ensure that the judgment of unsatisfactory work and the distinction between, say, B-and C+ is the same for all TFs in the course.

Make comments on written work specific and concrete. Returning a paper without suggestions for its improvement can cause students to despair; targeted suggestions help students to improve next time. Also, clearly distinguish comments on students’ work from comments on their character or their abilities. Students tend to identify strongly with their performance and attach self-worth to their grades and evaluations. To demonstrate your confidence that they can improve, give detailed feedback about how they can improve.

It is also the teaching fellow’s responsibility to maintain the confidentiality of student grades and of materials upon which evaluations are made. For this reason, TFs should not post grades by student name or identification number. Nor should TFs make a student’s submitted work generally accessible to anyone other than the student who has submitted it, unless specifically authorized to do so by the author.

Any time a student receives an unsatisfactory grade at midterm (D, E, or UNS), the course head may ask you to send an unsatisfactory grade report to the resident dean in the student’s House or to the student’s assistant dean. Unsatisfactory mid-term grades do not become a permanent part of the student’s record, however, they do alert advisors to potential problems while there is still time to help.


Extensions and Excuses for Exams

Course heads can and should provide arrangements to students with medical or other personal problems; resident deans and assistant deans of freshman are always available for consultation on how such arrangements can be equitably offered. Any request for accommodations should be vetted through the Accessible Education Office (AEO).  AEO is happy to confer with Course heads in regard to implementing any reasonable accommodations on the basis of a medical condition or disability. Course heads may give extensions of time on work up until the last day of exam period. They may also excuse students from hour-long exams or require substitute work to replace an hour-long exam as appropriate. (Faculty are not required to offer makeup examinations to students who are absent from hour-long or midterm examinations for reasons other than the observance of a religious holiday; see Information for Faculty Offering Instruction in Arts and Sciences.)

Administration of, and substitution for, final examinations is under the control of the Registrar and the Administrative Board (the “Ad Board”). If the instructor has chosen a registrar-administered final exam, the instructor may not offer an individual student an alternate form of evaluation to the final exam. Similarly, the Ad Board must approve any extension of work beyond the last day of exam period. There is no grade of “Incomplete” for undergraduates as there is for graduate students.

Handling Complaints About Grades

When students challenge a grade, it places TFs in a delicate position since it questions their competence and fairness. Since TFs do not have the final authority on giving grades, any complaints ultimately go to the course head. One experienced teaching fellow recommends answering a student’s complaint simply by saying, “I’ll ask the professor to read your paper/review your exam again.”

Some students will argue insistently about one point here or there on graded problem sets. TFs who frequently face this situation cannot refer every question to the course head. They must be prepared to explain that all TFs are grading problem sets according to an agreed upon policy for what each acceptable answer must demonstrate. If such complaints are a continual problem, the head teaching fellow should provide some guidance.

Confronting Plagiarism or Cheating

Harvard makes a concerted effort to inform students about the nature and consequences of plagiarism. Harvard Guide to Using Sources, a publication of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program, covers the principles and practices of citing sources, and the nature and causes of plagiarism, including improper collaboration. Students then cover these topics freshman year in their required Expository Writing class.

Rules concerning the abuse of computer systems are outlined in the FAS Handbook for Students, Chapter 4: General Regulations and Standards of Conduct .Other policies are published on the FAS Computing Services’ Website as Computer Rules & Responsibilities.

Despite these efforts, the number of plagiarism cases referred to the College’s Administrative Board each year suggests students continue to have difficulty applying citation rules to specific subject areas and to more advanced assignments that require them to integrate ideas rather than simply report on what others have said. In other words, do not assume that your students are capable of identifying plagiarism without some guidance from you.

You might, for example, present two ways to use the same secondary source, one an example of good practice, the other an example of plagiarism. Ask the students to identify which is which and to explain why. Correct any misapprehensions after the students have had their say. Section leaders can also offer positive suggestions on how to develop one’s own ideas and writing “voice.” Finding an “authentic” voice is a matter of great concern to students; your efforts to help will be appreciated and will give them an incentive to do original work.

Also, since students can best resist temptation if they do not encounter it in the first place, try to avoid situations that lend themselves to plagiarism. Give students guidance at the beginning of the term by clarifying assignments and assisting them in focusing on a topic. Check at various stages of progress to encourage their original efforts and help them avoid last minute work that can set the stage for plagiarism.

You are neither expected nor advised to try to deal with instances of suspected dishonesty (or other inappropriate behavior) yourself. You should instead refer the matter directly to the person responsible for the course. All cases of suspected or proven plagiarism or other academic dishonesty (such as suspected cheating on an examination) should be discussed with the head teaching fellow or course head. If you believe that you have encountered an instance of plagiarism, the course head will ask you to substantiate your suspicions. The course head will call the student’s resident dean (in the case of freshmen, the resident dean of freshmen), who will then contact the student and assemble the details of the case for presentation to the College Administrative Board. In keeping with faculty legislation, all cases of suspected academic dishonesty involving a College student must be referred to the Ad Board for investigation.

At Harvard, submission of the same or substantially similar work for more than one course is a form of academic dishonesty when the student has not obtained prior written approval from the course head of each course involved. Students sometimes report having received ambiguous advice from course heads on the submission of the same or similar work to more than one course. If the course head has agreed to accept work that is also being submitted to another course, it is important to be clear with students about the degree of similarity that is permitted.

Cheating on graded problem sets can also be a thorny problem since students are encouraged to work together in many courses in the belief that they will learn more that way. To draw an unambiguous clear line between cooperation and copying, professors should outline how students may collaborate on their work. Teaching fellows need to reiterate this position regularly.