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Student Preparedness Incorporated Into the Course Design

Nicholls State University

Students, in class and prepared to learn, is a fundamental challenge in essentially every educational program at every educational institution. Regardless of how you structure the use of class time, whether with lectures, group work, team-based learning, service-learning, engaged learning, or even flipping the class, a key component for student success comes down to students showing up for class prepared to do the work. Unfortunately, too often our students arrive for class having not done the assigned preparation for that day. In this blog, I present a course design where students do prepare in advance for class by using Class Preparation Assignments (CPAs) to both inform and stimulate class discussion. CPAs use a definitional grading system that makes being prepared for class non-negotiable (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010).

Class Preparation Assignments

CPAs are guided reading assignments accompanied by informal writing assignments consisting of approximately ten questions. The CPA questions serve to guide students in their reading, help them to prepare for class, and provide the basis for effective class discussion. The guided reading assignment also helps students – especially novice students – to identify what content within the assigned reading is most important (Hrepic et al., 2003).

CPAs are graded quickly as either pass-fail. Students are asked to bring two copies of their CPA answers to class – one that they give to you as they come into class (although they could email you their CPA prior to class) and the other that they keep to modify, update, or add notes during class discussion. To earn credit for a CPA, a student needs to show a good faith effort on their answers to each question and they need to attend class so that they can benefit from and contribute to class discussion.

In a definitional grading system, the pedagogical assumption is that different categories of work are each important, and the teacher does not want one category to compensate for the other in any way (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010, p. 116). In the table below there are two distinct categories of work: the CPAs, and the exams and quizzes. Students receive the grade for the lower of the two columns achieved.

That is, for a student to get a particular course grade, she must meet or exceed the standard for each category of work (i.e., CPAs and Exams/Quizzes). If a student gets an A average on the exams and quizzes but earns credit for only 75 percent of the CPAs, she receives a C for her grade. If a student earns credit for 90 percent or more of the CPAs, but gets a C average on the exams and quizzes, she receives a C for her course grade. The definition of an A student is one who not only does A work on the exams and quizzes, but who also comes to class prepared at least 90 percent of the time.

By having the CPAs be an essential component in getting a high grade in the course, you are indicating to students that coming prepared is an essential component of the course and students will come to class prepared. To reinforce the value of coming to class prepared and to honor the work they have accomplished it is important that you don’t lecture as if the students were seeing the material for the first time. Instead, devote class time to lectures over more difficult concepts and engaging the students with active learning strategies that address repetition of basic concepts, higher-level learning, and skill development (such as, improved oral communication skills). This system is also effective in that the CPAs do not inflate the course grade by assigning points to a pass/fail assignment that adds to the point total. If a student desires to earn an A in the course she must earn an average of an A on the exams and also do the work that shows she is prepared for class discussion at least 90% of the time.

How CPAs Change Your Teaching

Grading CPAs is relatively easy. By the end of class the students’ CPA answers are dated, having been used, and responded to in class. Simply scan the CPAs for whether the student showed a good faith effort.

The level of difficulty of the CPA questions has to be chosen with care. Make the questions too simple and the students will scan the reading for the answers. Make the questions too tough and the students will become frustrated and feel that the course design is unfair. I aim the CPA questions to the lower levels of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy. I then use class time to do the following:

  • reinforce the basics,

  • lecture on more difficult concepts,

  • explain areas where there is confusion,

  • and have the students work together on critical thinking exercises further up Bloom’s scale.

Pay attention to what you name the preparation assignments. I specifically do not call them homework assignments, because students associate being able to get credit on homework assignments independent of coming to class. The CPAs are preparation assignments for class, so students only get credit if they come to class.

It is vital that the CPAs are the framework for class discussion. Early in the semester, especially with novice students, it is generally a good idea to cover the CPA questions in a linear fashion. But later in the semester, after students are accustomed to coming to class prepared and actively participating, covering the CPA questions in a non-linear fashion that requires the students to use critical thinking skills and the knowledge they acquired from completing the CPA to solve an involved active learning exercise can be a dynamic learning experience. In either case, remember that the students worked hard to answer the CPA questions, and they expect to have those questions covered in class.

Another significant benefit of this course design is the quality of notes that students develop. Harrington & Zakrajsek (2017, p. 56 & p. 57) state:

“The difficulty with differentiating between important and unimportant points is often illustrated by the notes students take during a class session. Many students attempt to write down everything a professor says, which results in a stream of notes without much organization and leaves the students with missing information. Sometimes the most important content is not captured.”

The CPAs combined with a professor’s and students’ comments in class along with written active learning exercises, guide the student in developing quality notes.

A foundational tenet of this course design is that students with specific assignments can acquire the basic understanding of the material themselves before coming to class and that they need help primarily with critically applying and evaluating the material. Using the CPAs allow time and space for informed student voices. In the words of the classic Aretha Franklin song, it shows students R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and it helps students develop a sense of belonging and self-efficacy that leads to student success (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017; Strayhorn, 2015).

Discussion Questions

  1. How might the use of CPAs change from early in the semester to later in the semester?

  2. Aside from using the CPAs in class, what strategies might you use to reinforce to your students that coming to class prepared is important and valued?

  3. If all of your students came to class prepared every class period, what changes would you make to how you use your class time and how you teach?


Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based

strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus Publishing.

Hrepic, Z., Zollman, D., & Rebello, S. (2004). Students’ understanding and

perceptions of the content of a lecture. AIP Conference Proceedings, 720, 189-

192. doi: 10.1063/1.1807286

Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational

success for all students (1st ed.). Routledge.

Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. A. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and

assessment (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

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Thanks for the post. Would you be willing to share examples of questions that you have used in your CPA? I find myself struggling with what you identified-- either the questions are too easy or too hard. Thanks.

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