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Preparing Your Course

Best Practices for Course Preparation

1. Structure Courses to Maximize Learning and Reduce Cognitive Load

Routine communication and expectations

  • Provide a “roadmap” for each week or module of the course. The roadmap is a document that gives the learning outcomes, instructional materials, readings, assignments, due dates, study tips, office hours, and estimated times for each component. This is the #1 thing you can do to help students successfully navigate your course!

  • Set up weekly announcements where each week students get a recap of lessons, misconceptions, assignments, reminders, and words of encouragement. 
  • Develop rubrics for assignments that elaborate expectations.
  • Provide feedback regularly and on time
    • Aim to provide students as much timely, individual feedback as you comfortably can.
    • Consider using peer review for assignments to have students see the work of peers and get extra feedback on their work.
    • Consider having a deadline for students to submit work for peer review before the actual deadline so they can revise.
    • Consider recording audio feedback rather than written.
    • Consider recording a video after a major assignment or exam for the entire class where you discuss solutions and comment on common errors.
    • You can utilize CatCourses tools to reach out to students with common characteristics to acknowledge successes (e.g., review CatCourse quiz analytics to assess student performance).
    • Reach out individually to students who are not engaging or who may be struggling. For more information about evidence-based strategies for communicating with students, see our guide on Mid-Semester Interventions and Preventions for Student Success

Create engaging content-based videos to have more time for in-person activities and discussion

  • Educational videos are often utilized as the main vehicle for content delivery in flipped, blended, and online courses. Even in traditional courses, multimedia often supplement lectures. Brame’s (2016) review of literature provides a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that video can be a highly effective educational tool. However, not all videos are created equal.
  • To reduce extraneous load and confusion and boost engagement, videos should include the following strategies (adapted from Guo et al. 2014 and Brame 2016):
    • Signaling – highlighting important information/essential understandings
    • Segmenting and Brevity – chunking or interleaving information
    • Keep chunks less than 6 minutes for 100% engagement 
    • Weeding – eliminating extraneous information
    • Matching Modality to Content – use both visual and auditory channels to convey new information
    • Personality – narrator's rate of speech, inflections, and tone inclusive student engagement. Use conversational language. 
    • Embed Active Learning – include guiding questions, interactive features, and make videos parts of larger assignments. 

Benefits of Using a Rubric

  • A rubric is a tool in which the criteria used for grading is clearly identified along a performance level continuum (e.g., excellent, above average, meets minimum requirements, and needs improvement). Different types of rubrics serve different purposes, and they can be used for a wide variety of assessments including projects, papers, performances, and class participation.

  • While it initially takes some time to create a robust rubric, the benefits for students, especially when shared at the time of the assignment, are many. Rubrics can enhance student learning by connecting grading to course learning outcomes and/or objectives, improving assignment design by clarifying desired performance traits, increasing the likelihood that students understand and meet the assignment expectations, reducing student anxiety about the fairness of grading.

  • For instructors, rubrics can help save you time by narrowing the field of evaluation to desired learning outcomes facilitating instructive written comments contributing to fairness and consistency across multiple graders and sections, reducing grade disputes or challenges, reducing graders’ anxieties about grade inflation and/or the subjectivity of grading.

2. Working Smart with Teaching Assistants (TAs) 

Establishing Inter-Rater Reliability Among Multiple Graders

  • Many instructors teach large classes with multiple TAs doing most, if not all, of the grading.  But is there consistency of markings across multiple graders? Are you sure that your students within and/or across sections of the same course are receiving fair and consistent grading? The extent to which different raters marking the same student work would yield the same mark is referred to as inter-rater reliability. While there is no magical formula to guarantee inter-rater reliability, using grading rubrics can help minimize subjectivity in grading. 

  • One of the main challenges with assessment reliability has to do with how to increase consistency among multiple TAs/graders. We have two suggestions.

    • Write clear descriptions of the grading guidelines to signify the various types (or levels) of performances that TAs can expect. Take into consideration the level of the course, materials that have been covered, students' level of disciplinary sophistication and knowledge, and stage in the course or program; what the students are expected to know by this time (Terry, 2000, 232) (see rubric examples).

    • Train your TAs on how to use the rubric/grading guidelines since, in the real world, no one student's responses on an assignment or test will perfectly match the descriptions for each level of performance. Don't be afraid to readjust the criteria descriptions if there is consensus among your and the graders.

  • High inter-rater reliability among TAs helps ensure that course learning outcomes are being met and that student knowledge and performance are evaluated with a common measuring stick. We can obtain higher levels of inter-rater reliability among multiple graders through calibration exercises.

Calibration Training

  • Calibration is a process of ongoing, frequent collaboration carried out by members of a disciplinary team (e.g., all graders for the same course) who will typically review, discuss, and compare the same student artifact to come to a shared understanding of what practice looks like at different performance levels and establish and maintain consistency in analyzing evidence, providing feedback, and using professional judgment to determine student performance scores.

Steps in the Calibration Process

  1. Prepare: Provide all TAs with a) a copy of the student assignment (e.g., term paper; performance) and b) the scoring rubric to be used for grading.  Discuss each quadrant of the rubric to ensure the graders understand the distinctions between different scores possible for each of the performance criteria.  (You may want to show student examples of each level of performance and discuss what the score says to the student about future performance).
  2. Review and Reflect: Distribute a single student submission for blind review. Each TA uses the rubric to score the same student artifact. 
  3. Collaborate: First, have each member share their final assignment grade and provide a rationale for the score in each quadrant of the rubric.  Next, compare scores across all team members.  Finally, discuss any differences to establish consensus on the final grade.  If the grading guideline was ambiguous when grading, don't be afraid to modify the rubric before using it with the class.
    • ** Repeat as necessary with different student artifacts for the same assignment. The goal is fair and consistent grading across all graders.


Why should I include more writing in my courses?

Writing appears on Kuh’s (2008) list of high-impact practices, creating more authentic and inviting occasions for learning (Bain, 2004, 62-63). Moreover, “the relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement…is stronger than the relationship between students’ engagement and any other course characteristic” (Light, 2001, p. 55). Finally, writing can empower student success by giving learners space to digest course material, raise questions, and formulate opinions in ways that honor student agency (Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004).

Writing can be leveraged to impact students in two key ways: identity formation and cognition.

WRITING IDENTITY – to foster student resilience and persistence

Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak (2014) assert that for students to access and transfer the skills they learn in one domain to another, they must develop a robust identity as practitioners in their field. To accomplish this, they must knit together internal states (e.g., prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes, and dispositions) with new inputs (e.g., domain-specific concepts, technical terminology, and skills). Therefore, when instructors design assignments that blend the past-personal with the current-empirical, they foster students’ disciplinary identity development.

Some kinds of assignments to consider:

  • Autobiographical writing can be the foundation of asset-mapping work that will allow students to uncover the personal community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) they bring to the university.
  • Reflective writing can reinforce the synergies between their assets and the academic challenges they might face and/or the situations they encounter in their professional placements (e.g., internships). This kind of writing can also be used to provide a window into students’ dispositional or emotional barriers to learning.

WRITING-AS-LEARNING – to foster academic success

Writing is identified by Bean (2001) as “the most intensive and demanding tool for eliciting sustained critical thought” (xiii). Writing can also deepen learning by activating priming, calibration, chunking, synthesis, elaboration, and metacognition (Brown, Roedgiger & McDaniel, 2014), and reflective writing is particularly impactful for achieving these outcomes (Kalman, Aulls, Rohar, & Godley, 2008). Put simply, writing is thinking (Menary, 2007).

Therefore, frequent short writing tasks can activate specific cognitive activities. Here are some examples:


  • When students “pre-write” at the start of a new unit to survey their prior knowledge, it both prepares them for their new learning and provides feedback to the instructor on their levels of mastery.
  • When students compose “minute papers” at the beginning of class, they are given time to engage with a question posed and become better prepared to participate in subsequent class discussions.


  • When students write hypothetical exam questions, they engage with core concepts and can self-quiz. This is deemed the best way to prepare for an exam, as opposed to merely reviewing one's notes or textbook (McGuire, 2018).


  • When students can compose concept maps, they identify relationships between ideas and are more likely to retain the information.


  • When students are asked to develop a “thesis statement” for a lecture, they must connect the various elements/ideas/concepts discussed in class.


  • When students evaluate a scenario or develop a case study, they use and build on key ideas/concepts.


  • When students are asked to identify the key “take-aways” and “muddiest point(s)” from a class session, instructors receive immediate assessment information that can be followed-up on in the next class.
  • When students are encouraged to annotate their work, their learning process becomes visible.
  • When students write “exam wrappers” that discuss how they prepared for the exam, predict how they think they performed, and reflect on what they might have done differently, they are empowered to do better on the next exam.
  • When students “name what they know,” they develop self-efficacy (Camfield, Beaster-Jones, Miller, & Land, 2020).
  • When used for ASSESSMENT, writing provides a window into student understanding, provides a mechanism for evaluating students’ “intuitive grasp on course concepts” (Bahls), which might be much more important than their recall of textbook material.


  1. Bahls, P. (2012). Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: A guide to college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  2. Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
  3. Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The faculty’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., and M. McDaniel (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
  5. Camfield, E.K., Beaster-Jones, L., Miller, A.D., & Land, K.L. (2020). Using writing in science class to understand and activate student engagement and self-efficacy. [Chapter 7] In J. J. Mintzes & E. M. Walter (Eds.), Active learning in college science: The case for evidence-based practice (pp. 89-105). New York, NY: Springer.
  6. Kalman, C., Aulls, M. W., Rohar, S. and J. Godley (2008). Students' perceptions of reflective writing as a tool for exploring an introductory textbook. Journal of College Science Teaching 37(4): 74-81.
  7. Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, D.C.
  8. Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
  9. Menary, R. (2007). Writing as thinking. Language Sciences, 29: 621-632.
  10. McGuire, S. Y. (2018) Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. NY, NY: Stylus Publishing.
  11. Yancy, K. Robertson, L. and Taczak, K. (2014) Writing across Contexts: Transfer, composition, and sites of writing, Utah State UP.  
  12. Yosso, T. J.  (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8:1, 69-91. doi: 10.1080/1361332052000341006


Faculty Technology Guide for Instruction

UC Merced's Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) Faculty Technology Guide is a resource for technology services and solutions for research, teaching, and administrative needs. Resources include:

Research Computing – high-performance computing, visualization, data collaboration, and data storage. 

Classroom Technology – classroom technology, support solutions, and ways to reimagine your classroom experience. 

Key Technology Resources – broaden your technology awareness with these transferable resources