Rebuilding and rethinking your journalism class, Part I: Coursework approaches and philosophies

EDITOR’S NOTE: A couple friends and colleagues were wondering aloud on social media about issues related to grading structure, class building and other similar concerns. When I mentioned I’d been kicking this around for a while for a potential post, at least a half dozen other people hit me with a “please tag me when you get it done” note, so I figured I’d better get this done. Regular posting will resume later this month — VFF


In discussing my teaching philosophy and the ways in which I try to help students learn, I rely heavily on the concept of Self-Determination Theory and its tenets associated with motivation. I wrote an extensive post on how this works and why it has value about two years ago when the pandemic started, so you can go back to this and read it for additional help and thoughts.

As much as I wanted to nail this down in one take, I realized the piece had gotten overly long, so I decided to cut this into two basic chunks:

  • Part I: How to best set up the class so your students can succeed
  • Part II: How to approach grading and such as to not let it undermine your class

If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to work with you.

I have come to realize that the more I can simplify a concept, the better I’ll be at conveying it and getting my students to remember it. With that in mind, everything I do or don’t do when it comes to grades, assignments, penalties and more comes down to me looking at the thing I’m pondering and answering two simple questions:

  1. What am I trying to do here?
  2. Why am I trying to do it?

For all of my classes, which are in the “practical journalism skills” category (writing for the media, reporting, advanced reporting, feature writing, blogging, freelancing across disciplines etc.), I answer those two questions in this way:

“What am I trying to do here?”

I am trying to give the students specific tools to put in their toolbox that they can take with them to the next course in the sequence. These tools can go with them as well as to student media/organizations to hone and improve upon. These tools are the ones that they’ll most frequently use in the field in which they intend to seek employment.

I am trying to help them see things from an audience-centric perspective, regardless of what part of a field they’re entering. I want them to write in a fashion that gives people what they need to know in a way they’ll best understand it and so they can use that information effectively.

I am trying to give them valuable lessons, both through their successes and their failures, that they can carry with them. Their experiences, good and bad, should put them in a position to do better work in the future and continue to seek new opportunities to learn.

“Why am I trying to do it?”

Journalism is a practical field, in which the ability to use the tools in your toolbox is more important than if you aced a multiple-choice test. They need to get these tools and learn how to use them so they can be successful. Everything I’m trying to do should be geared toward getting them ready to deal with tasks, situations and potential problems in their professional lives. If I can’t identify a specific need in the field or tool for their toolbox in a particular assignment, I either need to fix or eliminate that assignment.

The understanding of audience has never been more important than it is now. We can no longer do the “All the news that’s fit to print” approach and expect the readers to fall in line and genuflect at the altar of our awesomeness. They have choices and options when it comes to what they consume, how they consume it and when they consume it. If I can’t get the kids to think about the audience, it doesn’t matter how good they are at anything else. They’re totally screwed.

I have learned more by failing in life than I ever learned by succeeding. The scars left behind give me a lasting memory of what I did, how badly it hurt and why I should never do that thing again. My students need to be OK with falling on their butts, but they have been trained for more than a decade’s worth of schooling to never accept failure or learn from it. It’s “A’s or bust” in so many of their minds that the minute they face adversity, they fall apart. I need to find ways to break down that wall in their heads and help them see the value of what mistakes can teach them.

If nothing else in this post matters to you, I hope that bit of introspection might help guide your approach.

Beyond that, here are are a few things I hope can be helpful to you all who are looking for ways to rebuild, reconfigure or re-imagine your approach to grades, assignments or class building:

HAVE A REASON FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO AND BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN IT WELL: This is the most basic rule I have for myself when it comes to covering concepts, assigning tasks and grading homework. It comes down to two basic reasons for me:

I hate busy work. I never liked it when I was a student and I was given something to do that lacked meaning or value. This often happened when we had substitute teachers in grade school, who would give us a word search or a crossword puzzle and tell us that we had to do it. I’d work really hard on the thing, get it done and turn it in with the idea that this was contributing mightily to my final grade.

Three weeks later, when I would ask the regular teacher about the assignment and what my grade was, I’d often get the, “What? Oh… I’m sure you’re fine…” response. It was then that I would realize the point of the assignment was to shut the class up and keep the sub from having to do actual teaching.

“Because I said so” isn’t an answer. The quickest way to sap someone of their autonomy, and thus undercut any chance you have to reach them, is to rely on power of position to dictate their behavior.

When I give presentations to student media editors, I often explain it this way: When you were in high school, you probably wanted your parents to let you stay out later, go to a party, borrow the car or something else like that. You’re articulating all the reasons why you should be allowed to do this, when all of a sudden Mom or Dad just says, “No.”

When you ask “Why?” and they say “Because I’m your parent, that’s why!” did that answer ever really seem satisfactory to you? Probably not. You didn’t go, “Oh, damn! I totally forgot about that! Thanks so much for reminding me. I’ll be up in my room cleaning up my pigsty and eating some broccoli while I’m at it. Good talk!”

 If I’m giving a student something to do, I need to make sure it has value and that I can explain what that value is. If I’m docking a kid a half-grade for a mistake or failing the kid on a particular assignment, I need to be able to articulate what went wrong and why it matters this much. This reinforces the lessons behind the assignments and grading and it also helps the kid remember it better.

LET THE PENALTY FIT THE CRIME: The rules professors have for their classes can vary from a couple suggestions to something that would make a lawyer blush. I have colleagues who deduct daily participation points for each minute a student is late. I also have colleagues who don’t care if the kids show up at all.

When it came to how to govern my classroom, I kind of liked the late John Madden’s set of rules for his Oakland Raiders’ teams:

  1. Be on time.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Play like hell when I tell you to.

I’m sure each of us has a good reason for the rules we espouse. (If not, go back to the previous point…) The one thing that’s important, however, is to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

I tend to rely on my Catholic upbringing when it comes to metering out punishment, in that I tend to distinguish between venial sins and mortal sins. When it comes to venial sins, I want to penalize them enough to create awareness, but not so much as to really harm them.

In the case of a single assignment, I set the “venial” pain at a level in which a student can make an error or two and still find themselves in that low A/high B range. Frequent visits to Venial City, however, can really do a number on their grade.

When it comes to mortal sins, I want it to hurt so bad they never do it again, but I don’t want to essentially kill them for their transgressions, either.

Case in point: Fact errors.

I have heard a wide array of options for punishing students who misspell a proper noun, get a number wrong or in some other way fail to be factually accurate. When a number of professors got together and this came up, it sounded like a game of “Oh yeah? Top this!” Punishments included:

  • A failing grade of 50% on the assignment
  • A zero for the assignment
  • A failing grade for the course
  • A first strike toward expulsion
  • Whatever this is

I consider fact errors to fall into that “mortal sin” category, so I’m not opposed to whacking the crap out of a student who makes one. However, if you hit someone with the death penalty right out of the gate, you’re never going to give them a chance to learn from the mistake.

Also, if we’re supposed to be preparing people for jobs in the “real world,” I somehow doubt a transposed number in an address or a typo in a name would cost someone a job without some extreme extenuating circumstances. (On the other hand, something like plagiarism, making up a source or similar malfeasance would likely cost someone a job. Thus, I have no problem with breaking out the death penalty on those.)

A fact error that would require a publication run a correction costs one of my students about one-sixth of their total grade on that assignment (Don’t ask. It’s some weird math that would take a bit too long to explain). In some of my classes, I also have the students write a correction for me that they have to submit before they get the points the story would earn.


SHIFT THEIR FOCUS OFF OF GRADES: I hate grades and grading, primarily because these things don’t matter when it comes to practical journalism.

One of the first things I tell the students is that when they apply for a job in journalism, no one will ever ask them what their grade-point average is. (As mentioned in an earlier post, it’s now up to two people who ever came back to tell me that grades were mentioned, so maybe ALMOST no one is a better way of saying this...)

These people care about what you can do as a writer, reporter, photographer, videographer, blogger, podcaster, social media manager or whatever. The fact you got an A on a fire brief because you cajoled your professor to the brink of a mental breakdown isn’t going to impress them. (Also, your GPA can be buoyed by gen eds and I doubt any decent newspaper, TV station or website is going to be blown away at your ability to instantly recall the key reforms associated with the Council of Trent.)

Your institution might require a certain grade in a certain class to move on to the next one in the sequence. Here at UWO, you need a C or better to move on or you have to take the class again, and I tell them that right up front. I also tell them this:

“You need a C or better to get out of here alive. The way I have structured this class, this grade is entirely possible for anyone in here to achieve. You really have to try to fail my class, which a number of people have managed to prove in spectacular fashion.

“However, the way I built this, no one assignment can kill you and no one assignment can save you. It’s hard to get an A, because you have to demonstrate consistent excellence. However, it’s hard to get below a C, because you have to turn in consistently bad work.

“But here’s my promise to you: If you show up at every class, turn in every assignment on time, ask for help when you don’t understand something, come to office hours if you need more help and basically keep working at getting better, the grades will come and you’ll get out of here just fine.”

In a similar vein, I don’t push students to get A’s when I realize it’s not in their best interest to do so. Between the stress of the pandemic and any of a dozen personal crises, some kids are reaching their breaking points. If I can’t make the situation better, the least I can do is not make it worse.

When a kid needs a C to get out of a class alive or a D- at worst to pass the class and graduate, there is no shame in telling the kid, “Look. Get the job done the best you can. Don’t do something illegal/unethical in your work because you wanted to cut a corner and see if you could get away with something. Just turn in something functional and move on with life.”

It might not be a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment, but at least it’s honest and helpful.


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