Setting Explicit Expectations

There was a thread on Twitter recently asking about how college professors can help their students be less anxious about grades. Not surprisingly, many of the responses pointed out that college students worry about grades because college grades have real consequences. They can affect students’ eligibility for scholarships and financial aid and also their chances of getting into grad school or med school or law school. With increasingly large numbers of students relying on scholarships and financial aid, and with grad school and med school and law school becoming increasingly important for students’ financial security and stability post-graduation, it’s no wonder that students are worried about grades.

Reducing those external pressures would obviously be the best way to reduce students’ stress. But, short of that, there are still things professors can do. In my own classes, for example, and based on findings from some of my own research, I try to reduce student stress by: 1) making my expectations as explicit as possible, and 2) grading students based, in part, on effort and improvement, and not just on what they “achieve.”

In practice, that means:

  • basing part of students’ grades on small, completion-based assignments
    (i.e., if you do the assignment, you get full credit)

  • including “extra” assignments of each type and dropping students’ lowest grades
    (that way if students miss an assignment or bomb one, they aren’t overly penalized)

  • giving students detailed review guides for exams
    (not giving them the answers, but outlining what they’ll need to know/be able to do)

  • giving students clear assignments and rubrics for projects and assignments
    (that way students know what to do and how they’ll be graded)

  • offering an extra credit “improvement bonus”
    (i.e., rewarding students who improve their scores from Exam 1 to Exam 2)

Essentially, I find that by making my expectations explicit, and by allowing students to earn points, in part, for their efforts and improvements, they feel more ownership of their grades. And they feel more confident about their ability to control how well they do in the class. Which ultimately means fewer grade questions and complaints and freak-outs in the end.

Using Digital Devices Productively In Class

There’s evidence that students do better in class when they use a pen and paper instead of a laptop to take notes. But there’s reason to suspect that those differences in student outcomes are less about which tech they use than about how they take notes with each type of tech.

Given those possibilities, and in the interest of creating an inclusive classroom environment that accommodates students’ diverse learning needs, I don’t ban laptops in class. Instead, I focus on teaching my students to use tech effectively. I do that, in part, by giving students note outlines that match the slides for each of my classes. Students can print out the outlines or download them and fill them in digitally. Almost all my students use laptops, but the outlines keep them on task (and off Instagram).

To give you a sense of what this looks like in my classes, here’s the full set of slides for my class on the sociological imagination. And here are the notes slides I give students for that class.

Article Writing 101


This outline was originally designed for writing with ethnographic fieldnotes. However, it can be easily adapted for writing academic manuscripts based on other types of qualitative and quantitative data, as well.

Abstract (250 words or less)

  • State your research question

  • Explain how this research question speaks to a larger theoretical puzzle or gap in the literature

  • Describe the data that you use to answer your research question

  • State what you find

  • Describe what these findings suggest about the answer to your research question

  • Explain why these findings are important

Introduction (3 paragraphs)

  • Describe the puzzle or gap in the literature that you will address with your data

    • What do we know?

    • What do we not know?

    • What will you tell us?

  • Identify your research question and explain how you answer it

    • What question will you answer?

    • What data will you use to answer this question?

    • What do you find?

  • Explain the importance of your findings

    • What is the answer to your research question?

    • How does this answer broaden, clarify, or challenge existing knowledge/theories?

Justification (1,000 words or less)

  • Restate the puzzle or gap in the literature that you will address

  • Explain why this puzzle or gap is important to address

  • Describe (in more detail than in the intro) what we know about this topic/issue

  • Describe (in more detail than in the intro) what we do not know about this topic/issue

  • State your research question
    (i.e., “In light of these lingering questions, I seek to examine…”)

  • Explain how your research question solves the puzzle or fills the gap in the literature
    (i.e., “Answering this question allows me to…”)

*Note: The point of a literature review is not actually to review all of the relevant literature. The point is to make the case for why your study is important. 

Methods (4-6 short paragraphs)

  • Provide a brief overview of the study.

  • Describe your research site, why you chose it, and how you gained access

  • Describe your research participants (the people you observed)

  • Discuss your role in the field and how your identity shaped your observations

  • Describe the fieldwork you conducted and the data you collected

  • Describe how you analyzed the data you collected

  • Describe the limitations of your study
    (i.e., explain how your study is limited by your methodological choices)


  • State your argument

  • Identify 2-3 supporting points – how your data support your argument

  • Identify 2-3 patterns in the data that provide evidence for each supporting point

  • For each pattern:

    • Describe an example from your data that typifies this pattern

    • Provide a brief fieldnote excerpt for that example

    • Briefly explain how this example represents the larger pattern

    • Briefly explain how this pattern provides evidence for the supporting point

*Note: Everything that you include in your analysis should directly support your argument, and that argument should be the answer to your research question. A clear structure (with topic sentences and transitions) is very important for writing an analysis that meets this goal. 

Discussion/Conclusion (1,000 words or less)

  • Summarize your findings

    • Remind readers of the puzzle/gap in the literature that you are trying to solve

    • Remind readers of the specific research question that you have answered

    • Briefly review what you found

    • Briefly explain what these findings imply about the answer to your research question

  • Discuss the implications of your findings

    • Explain how your findings solve the puzzle or fill the gap in the literature

    • Explain how the resolution of this gap/puzzle helps to clarify, challenge, or expand existing knowledge or theory

    • Using existing literature, explain why your findings are or are not surprising

  • Identify possible explanations for your findings

    • Use existing research to discuss the most likely explanation for your findings

    • Consider alternative explanations for your findings and explain (using your data and/or other research) why these alternative explanations do or do not seem plausible

  • Conclude by reviewing why these findings (and the larger puzzle/gap they address) are important


Here's a PDF version