Online finals: Providing flexibility & opportunities for creativity

By Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, History

For last spring’s HSTLAC 289: The Cuban Revolutionary Experiment, I initially planned to offer a final exam, similar to the mid-term, but changed my mind. Instead, I asked my 26 students to do a final assignment. In the last week of class instruction, I made the final assignment optional in order to accommodate the needs of students impacted by the protests. Because I designed the class with a good number of short assignments, and because the mid-term exam went well, I felt comfortable making these changes.

The mid-term was a great success for the majority of students. The first part included a set of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions. The other half consisted of three short writing exercises where students were presented with a scenario to respond to. Using knowledge from the class, they had to go on a Twitter rant, write a film review for their student group blog, and compose a Facebook post. The exam was all on Canvas, open book, and not timed. Students had four days to finish it (so they could come in several times to address the different components of the exam).

The final was going to be the same, but honestly, we all were very tired. Earlier in the quarter, we had a very effective short assignment in which students crafted a quiz based on the assigned reading and then had a class peer answer it. Because students had more autonomy, they engaged with the material differently. Inspired by that experience, I shifted the final exam to a final assignment.

The final assignment prompted students to pretend to be a TA for an upcoming study abroad program taking a group of Environmental Studies undergraduates to Cuba for two weeks. They were asked to create a one-hour presentation, based on our course, introducing students to the projects and struggles of the Cuban revolutionary experiment of the last 60 years. As TAs, they were charged with preparing the study-abroad students to understand with historical nuance the socio-political dynamics they would encounter in their visit to the island. They had to prepare 8-10 slides discussing at least five major points (three of these points had to be based on matters explored in the second half of the course). I provided some tips on what makes for effective slide presentations to help students think through the medium strategically. Their slide presentations were evaluated mainly on substance, completeness, coherence, creativity, and originality.

These changes to the course assignments resulted in the students experiencing more joy and creativity in learning, which is what I think we need most.


Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva is a Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor in History and associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history. She is also the current director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History at UW-Seattle. Her research focuses on the production of race in the Americas, slavery and post-emancipation racial politics, and comparative colonial arrangements in the configuration of empires. She is the author of the award-winning book Silencing Blackness: Disentangling Race, Colonial Regimes, and National Struggles in Post-Emancipation Puerto Rico (1850-1920). Her scholarship appears in several academic journals such as the Hispanic American Historical Review, positions: Asia critique, Journal of Modern American History, and NACLA: Report on the Americas.

Flexible finals in the pandemic

By Holly Barker, Anthropology

This quarter I am teaching Research in Critical Sport Studies (ANTH 269). It’s a course for first-generation to college and/or students underrepresented in research. The class gives students a space to develop a series of small research projects with classmates so students consider the important contributions they make to academia, as well as opportunities to take these projects to a deeper level during successive quarters.

I don’t give midterms, and I don’t give final exams. Instead, I collaborate with students to create final projects that apply their learning from the class in ways that are meaningful or practical to them.

This is a quarter for maximum flexibility, so I’m emphasizing options. I encourage the students to talk about the barriers to learning they are experiencing right now so we can collectively adjust. Some students want their final projects to be a written option (e.g., writing an application to the McNair program or to an honors program on campus ). Another option is a video/oral submission where students apply critical discourse analysis in sports to the unfolding current events connected to police violence and the pandemic, an option that emphasizes the importance of student voices.

The students and I feel challenged in so many ways this quarter, and we are being open and honest with one another. I’m certainly not at my best, and I can’t expect them to be either. We are learning a great deal, but our learning is not the same as it would be in the classroom. We are learning a great deal about ourselves, and our responsibilities to shape our institutions. My job in this class and in the assignments is to further enhance the existing strengths of these fabulous young people so they will feel bolstered, prepared, cared for, and connected as they address the challenges of this world.

Our class started with a critical analysis of sports but quickly transitioned to the many ways that what happens in sports is very much connected to what happens outside of sports. I thank my students for their grace, courage, honestly, and patience this quarter, and for their ability to lean into one another for support even though they have never met in person.


Holly M. Barker is a principal lecturer in the UW Department of Anthropology and curator for Oceanic & Asian Culture at the Burke Museum.

Art is a dialogue

By Timea Tihanyi, School of Art + Art History + Design

Because art is a dialogue, much of what the Interdisciplinary Visual Arts seniors have been doing in ART 400 this quarter has been synchronous. Instead of the white-box gallery exhibition, students are presenting their work in a virtual “gallery” for which each student created both a senior project and an art portfolio website. By still presenting the work publicly, we’re trying to create a sense of normalcy. Working on an online platform gives the students new tools and new opportunities for content and form. It’s difficult to make creative work in isolation, so we’ve done guided peer critiques using the breakout room function in Zoom regularly.

Students have also had various opportunities to get the most important class content, do work, give and receive reviews asynchronously. They co-authored artist statements and gave written progress reports and feedback using Google Docs. Then used the feedback they received from peers and from me when preparing their online portfolios.

As for the final grading, only a small percentage of the final grade comes from the final project. I used a large number of low-stakes assignments throughout the quarter (such as the written progress reports and feedback). Our finals are a way to look back on the process, get a better understanding of each student’s individual perspective, and reflect on their quarter-long conversations with each other, me, and their work.


Image by Flora Davis for spring 2020 ART 400 course
Image by Flora Davis

Learn more about the ART 400 gallery page, “Ebb and Flow,” and find links to the students’ portfolio sites on the IVA Open House page.

Timea Tihanyi is a senior lecturer in the School of Art + Art History + Design’s Interdisciplinary Visual Arts concentration.

Teaching Spanish: A multi-day “finale” instead of a final exam

By Samuel Jaffee, Spanish & Portuguese Studies 

This spring quarter I’m teaching Spanish 302 and Spanish 303, both of which guide students in developing writing strategies in Spanish (creative fiction, business letters, reportage, argument and counterargument, and literary and visual analysis).

In lieu of a final exam, both classes will enjoy a multi-day “finale.”

Students in Spanish 302 are collaborating during Week 10 on synchronous debates (using Zoom, with a mix of speaking and writing). These debates are design-centered and inquiry-based activities that ask students to engage critically with current events and rely on the skills built during the course. In the debates, students propose a political, social, and economic future for Venezuela that responds to that country’s ongoing, years-long crisis. Students also debate Mexico’s “Day without Women,” a social movement from March of this year, and develop plans for a mobile app that would spread knowledge of the Mexican women’s lived realities.

During Week 10 in Spanish 303, students will collaborate one day synchronously (on Zoom, mostly speaking) and one day asynchronously (in writing, via Canvas Discussions) on creative activities that allow students to rethink, rewrite, and build upon four stories read in the second part of the quarter, in order to make the characters’ identities and lives experientially real. Students recently completed a formal literary analysis essay, a comparative analysis of two stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Julio Cortazar. In this project, students will have a chance to play with the readings — perhaps writing a sequel, changing the protagonist, introducing a new conflict, or clarifying what is left unsaid in the original. In these creative tasks, students have the freedom to focus on aspects of the stories that were confusing to them and keep “thinking with” the characters (and their classmates’ ideas).

I have studied the work of linguists Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, and Claire Kramsch, and artist-scholars Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), and I use their approaches to invigorate my assessments. The SPAN 303 course methodology is anchored in the scholarship and practice of Pre-Texts by Doris Sommer (Harvard University) and the work of Sommer’s Cultural Agents initiative, which offers educators programming, training, and workshops — most recently, an April webinar via Zoom in “Social (Distant) Practicing” — that I have found inspirational for my course design.

These design-centered activities encompass methodologies that democratize learning for the current generation and make the class a lot more dynamic. After all, who wants to learn Spanish in order to take an exam?

“Finale” project examples

Two students in Spanish 303, Kamryn Bodholt and Zachary Chambers, submitted dueling songs to the Canvas Discussions — songs that do much to clarify the turbulent emotional state of the protagonist of Argentine expatriate writer Julio Cortázar’s classic story “La noche boca arriba” [Headstrong into the Night].

Kamryn and Zachary were also my students in Spanish 302 in the winter quarter of this year. Here, they describe how the two-course Spanish writing sequence helps their intellectual and creative development as they gain fluency in the language:

Kamryn Bodholt:

I am a sophomore and am double majoring in Spanish and English: Creative Writing. Spanish 302 and 303 have been my favorite Spanish classes at UW so far (especially 303) because I have a lot of interest in creative writing and short stories, so in a way this class has been a combination of my two majors. Reading the stories alone builds my vocabulary (having to look at the definitions in the margins or the dictionary), and the homework questions help guide my thinking by hinting at the deeper messages in the story. I like how there can be multiple interpretations of each story, and that we have the freedom to explore our own interpretations as well as our classmates’ through class activities and discussions. Reading the articles written by literary critics has helped improve my professional/scholarly tone when writing in Spanish, and I have noticed these improvements in my speaking as well. I also enjoy the opportunities we have to be creative during class, like creating an Instagram post from the perspective of a character in one of the stories, drawing pictures of characters/plots, and writing songs, to name a few. Practicing my reading, writing, and speaking skills through these various activities has made me a more well-rounded Spanish student, and I can see these improvements in my writing when I compare essays from past quarters to ones from this quarter.

Un accidente de moto
ha hecho a mi cuerpo roto

Desperté en un hospital
y la ayuda médica para salvar mi vida fue vital

En la selva en mis sueños
tenía que correr de los enemigos
 
Había una enfermera vestida de blanca ropa,
y ella me dio mucha sopa
 
Un enemigo me apuñaló con un cuchillo
Esto también sucedió en mi sueño
 
El conflicto con los enemigos fue una inconveniencia
pero habló con otro paciente, y tuvo la misma experiencia
 
Estaba atrapado en la silla y escuché a los tambores
y sentí la celebración de mi muerte de los aplaudidores
 
En el hospital no pude abrir los ojos
Ya mi vida no tenía despojos
 
Alguien se le había acercado
Con un cuchillo en la mano
 
En este momento gané una nueva perspectiva
En la posición de la boca arriba

Zachary Chambers:

I am a sophomore pursuing a double degree in Biochemistry and Spanish. During my past two quarters in Spanish 302 and 303, my knowledge of the language has grown exponentially. I have really enjoyed these courses more than my previous ones, because they have been structured very differently. Instead of focusing on the smaller aspects of grammar and stressing over tests, I have been able to learn the language in a much more engaging and interesting way. As a matter of fact, the assignments always stretch my thinking and sometimes leave me pondering over a story for many days. They are always very creative, unique and thought-provoking. Because of this, I feel that my Spanish writing skills have tremendously improved as I am able to analyze texts from multiple perspectives before making a final decision about the characters, themes, hidden messages, etc. All in all, I have really liked these courses and have grown greatly as a Spanish writer because of them.

La mujer con quien me choca
En la ciudad hermosa
Ojalá viviera allí
 
La camilla de que me ponen
Incómodo, pero reconfortante
A saber que el otro era una pesadilla
 
La selva que huelo intensamente
En que corro para escaparme
De la guerra florida
 
En la cama, me siento
Ojos muy abiertos
Y como la sopa que me pone tranquilo
 
Regreso a la selva
Todavía corriendo
Puedo ver sus antorchas
 
¡Fiebre! Me despierto en la espalda
Con una tos y bebo agua
Para ponerme de nuevo a dormir
 
Los gritos que oigo
Me están acercando
Hasta que me llevan y me toman
 
Me despierto por la última vez
Y sé que la realidad no era lo que pensé
Este es la verdad
 
Las hogueras que me circundan
Y los aztecas que me miran
Me dicen que este es el fin
 
Me acerca con el cuchillo
Que tiene la habilidad de asesinar
Yo boca arriba

Samuel Jaffee, lecturer, UW Spanish & Portuguese StudiesSamuel Jaffee is a lecturer in Spanish & Portuguese Studies and teaches courses in writing, literary studies, and visual culture. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, with a specialization in Andean literary and cultural studies from the colonial period through the present day. He presents widely and leads workshops for high school and college instructors on strategies for teaching classes of heritage and second-language learners, writing pedagogies, and incorporating less-commonly taught languages, such as indigenous languages, into a Spanish curriculum.

Teaching physics: Videos instead of midterms

Video problem solutions

By Peter Selkin, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma.

For the past two quarters, I’ve used an approach based on an idea adapted from Andy Rundquist, a physics professor at Hamline University in Minnesota. Instead of a midterm and a final (and in addition to weekly content quizzes), students submit short videos walking the viewer through solutions to physics problems of their choice. Overall, I have been impressed by the solutions students — including those who are struggling in other aspects of the course — submit. Even if the students are getting help from other sources, I see their ability to explain their work on a video as a demonstration of their knowledge.

This approach works best in certain contexts. Most of my teaching is in the introductory physics sequence at UW Tacoma where classes range between 20-40 students. Video demonstrations may not work well for larger classes. The problems require substantial scaffolding for both technical (e.g. posting videos) and pedagogical (e.g. choosing problems) reasons, but that scaffolding is scalable.

Grading is the most time-consuming part of this approach. For that reason, I limit video length to five minutes and cap the number of videos at 10 per student. I have students submit the videos in two sets (five at midterm and the rest at finals), and I watch the videos at 1.5x speed as I grade them. I use a holistic rubric to grade solutions, which also speeds the process. Although grading is time-consuming, it has been rewarding to hear students’ voices on their videos.


For additional information about video problem solutions and other teaching tools Peter Selkin uses, visit his Selkin Lab blog.


Peter Selkin is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma. As a geophysicist who studies the magnetic properties of earth materials, his scholarship and teaching are at the boundary between geophysics and mineralogy.

Math in the time of coronavirus

Reflections on teaching during the pandemic

By Jennifer Quinn, School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Tacoma 

The COVID-19 viral disruption affects us all, particularly our most vulnerable citizens. It’s vital to find ways to connect our students and humanize this unprecedented and isolating experience.

These days I’m trying to worry less about the integrity of online examinations and the quality of online content — and think more about the people. I start by assuming students’ best intentions.

I’m also thinking about learning goals: Do we want to enable students to be critical thinkers? Problem solvers? To have flexible minds and be able to adapt? They will get all that through the experience we provide and more.

Will it really matter if my Calculus I class doesn’t get to L’Hopital’s rule, or the Calculus II class doesn’t get to partial fraction decomposition? I doubt it. For those that need it, there will be time later. For now, let’s congratulate ourselves and our students on getting through, and just breathe.


Visit Math in the Time of Corona to read more of Jennifer Quinn’s reflections on teaching during the pandemic.


​​Jennifer Quinn is a professor of mathematics in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Tacoma. She has held many positions of national leadership in mathematics, including executive director for the Association for Women in Mathematics, co-editor of Math Horizons, a publication of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), chair of MAA’s Council on Publications, and currently MAA’s president-elect. As a combinatorial scholar, Quinn thinks that beautiful proofs are as much art as science. Simplicity, elegance, and transparency should be the driving principles, and she strives to bring this same ethic to her teaching, service, and professional work.

Teaching from everywhere

Looking for even more ideas on how to teach and grade remotely? Find out how Rick Mohler, UW associate professor of architecture, is teaching his Research Design Studio students, as they discuss how they have re-imagined six Seattle neighborhoods.

Learn more about UW Zoom video conferencing.

Also, check out what faculty at Stanford are doing. Here is how Indiana University is maximizing remote teaching, as well as University of California Berkeley. Portland State University and Oregon State University have guides, too. And don’t forget to check the UW Teaching Remotely site, which we update regularly.