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Preparatory Notes as a Way to Individualize Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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 “These notes are a way mainly for you to gather your thoughts and secondarily for me to get a sense of what is on your mind.” 


The posting below looks at an interesting technique for connecting with students individually even in relatively large classes. It is by Professor Floyd Cheung of Smith College in Northampton, MA, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 28, Number 2, March 2019. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Preparatory Notes as a Way to Individualize Teaching and Learning

As professors of classes in the 13–50-student range, how can we individualize teaching and learning in a sustainable way? While lectures, whole-class discussions, and other activities can reach a large group of students, it can be hard—if not impossible—to engage with every single student’s particular curiosities, questions, and ideas on a week-to-week basis. Teaching a class in toto as inclusively and equitably as we can is essential, but when students know that we care about them as individuals, they report higher levels of self-motivation and professor credibility (Teven & Hanson, 2002; Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). 

Some of us have had success accomplishing this goal by requiring individual conferences or setting up online discussion forums. Personally, I haven’t been able to solve the scheduling challenges of required individual conferences, especially if there are to be several during the semester. Online discussion forums have their uses, but I’ve found that many students post contributions perfunctorily. Moreover, because the structure of an online discussion forum invites communal response, it doesn’t seem quite right for instructor- student engagement. 

Indivdual Contact

The solution I’ve been implementing for years now is a refined version of the response paper, which I call the preparatory note. In most of my courses, students must email me at least two hours before class with their preparatory notes of about 250 words in length. My syllabus explains, “These notes are a way mainly for you to gather your thoughts and secondarily for me to get a sense of what is on your mind. You might write a brief reaction paper; pose some questions; share your observations on a striking formal feature, passage, or pattern; describe a connection between the primary and secondary readings; or explain a connection between the reading and your own life, another class you’re taking, or contemporary popular media. I will respond with a brief email before class, perhaps to encourage you to share your idea in class, follow up with me during office hours, or pursue your thinking in some other way.” 

Opening Dialogue/ Seeding Discussion 

For efficiency, I limit my responses to two sentences: one that acknowledges the significance of whatever they are observing or asking and one that encourages them to share their question or observation in class, pursue their idea in writing, and/or talk with me about their note during office hours. In courses with more than 40 students, I make the workload more manageable by dividing the class in half (e.g., students with last names beginning with A–L send notes on Tuesday, while students with last names beginning with M–Z send them on Thursday; we switch days at midsemester). Note that no preparatory notes are expected when other major assignments are due. 

My opening sentence often begins with “Thank you, __________, for observing/asking about/challenging __________.” My second sentence can take several forms, like “Consider asking about this in class discussion today,” “When we discuss this passage in class, may I ask you to say something about what you noticed?” “If you have time later, consider reading __________ on this topic,” “This is a promising seed for your next essay,” or “Let’s talk about this further during office hours.” If the preparatory note falls far short of 250 words or seems insufficiently thoughtful to me, my response would ask the student to develop his or her idea more fully next time. 

A Co-Created Lesson Plan 

Of course, this means that I must block out the two hours before my class begins. I understand that those of us with heavy teaching loads cannot do this, but I’ve decided that within my constraints, the time is worthwhile. Instead of simply rereading and crafting my own lesson plan, I weave my collated sense of what is on my students’ minds into something more like a co-created lesson plan for the day. Recently, I’ve boiled my lesson plans down to no more than five items, which I put on the board as an agenda. Usually, I begin with the topic or question that is on most students’ minds. Unless my students have given me permission to call on them regarding their prep-note idea, I don’t single anyone out. In many cases, it works simply to say something like “Based on your prep notes this morning, 

I can tell that many of you are thinking about...” Because I have encouraged students to speak up beforehand, and because they have had time to gather their thoughts, students normally jump right in. 

Respecting Privacy- Building Trust 

Sometimes, however, the ideas that emerge in preparatory notes are not meant for communal discussion. Because the notes are private—i.e., not posted in a forum—many students feel free to pour their hearts out to me. I often assign works of Asian-American literature that evoke strong reactions from many of my students, either about their own identities, their family, or their friends. Some students use preparatory notes to start conversations with me about issues that would not come up in any other way—certainly not in class discussion and only sometimes during office hours. My responses to these emails acknowledge both their trust in me as well as their content. 

These small assignments not only serve as low-stakes nudges to make sure students prepare for class—just doing them earns full credit—but also work as a form of “light-touch, targeted feedback” (Carrell & Kurlaender, 2017). Carrell and Kurlaender found that personalized emails to students encouraging them to perform self-efficacious and help-seeking behaviors increased their sense of engagement and belonging. 

Maintaining the ‘Zone’ 

Preparatory notes achieve a similar goal with the added benefit of addressing students’ particular intellectual musings and supporting their sense of individual worth. It remains difficult to keep an entire class of diverse students in the “zone of proximal development,” but this individualized attention can help (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). Furthermore, instructor responses can operate as microaffirmations, or “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening” (Rowe, 2008, p. 4). Yes, thinking about and answering all those preparatory notes take time, but I’ve found the time well-spent. ❖


Carrell, S., & M. Kurlaender. 2017, October. “My professor cares: Experimental evidence on the role of faculty engagement.” Presentation at CUNY, New York, NY. 

Rowe, M. 2008. “Micro-affirmations & micro-inequities.” Journal of the International Ombudsman Association1(1)

Teven, J. J., & T. L. Hanson. 2002, November. “The impact of teacher immediacy and perceived teacher caring on teacher credibility.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, New Orleans, LA. 

Umbach, P. D., & M. R. Wawrzynski. 2005. “Faculty do matter: The role of college
faculty in student learning and engagement.” Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 153–184. [E7]

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 


Floyd Cheung
Professor of English Language and Literature
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063 

Telephone: (413) 585-3619 Email: