Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Redundancy and the Weekly Plan

In Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener said, "We can hardly expect that any important message is entrusted for transmission to a single neuron, nor that any important operation is entrusted to a single neuronal mechanism" (1). When teaching writing online, simply put, you should provide information to your students through multiple means. This redundancy and repetition will help students stay on track in the course so we can focus on the more challenging and complex task of helping them improve their writing.

In my online (and even hybrid and f2f) courses, I try to send the same message to students several different ways. I don't want to nag them, but I want them to feel on top of their assignments. I think that confidence and sense of orientation helps them with their writing, I think.

So, for instance, if they have a final draft of a writing project due, they might receive this information in several ways:
  • The due date is on the syllabus they receive at the start of the class (and to which there is always a link on the homepage).
  • The date is also listed on the specific instructions for that writing project, which I provide separately when I assign that project.
  • Each week, I provide my class with a comprehensive "Weekly Plan," that will list all of their activities, including the due date for the project.
  • In my comments reviewing the rough draft, I mention--either in writing or via audio-visual comments--when the final draft is due.
  • The course announcements on the homepage include a note about the due date.
  • A group email from me reminds them of the date (often sent a day or two before the deadline).
Some of this might appear overkill, and I don't use them all with every assignment, but remember that scheduling reminders are often embedded in course documents. In fact, only the email and pop-up option are "instrusive," and that to me is not the right term considering that I am trying to help them do their best in the course.

The main point is to reinforce your message about assignments, expectations, and requirements in several ways; while I think this is good teaching practice in general, it's even more important in the online writing class environment.

One method of communicating with students that I have found particularly useful is what I call the Weekly Plan. This method, while hardly novel, allows me to provide my students each week with a complete grid of all of the activities they have to accomplish in the course, broken down into specific (and thus easily completable) tasks. The Plan itself--and I use capitals to reinforce for students its hallowed stature--is easy to create using an HTML or Word table.

Below is an actual sample Weekly Plan from one of my courses (it looks prettier when not scrunched into a small horizontal space like it is here). Simple in concept, the Weekly Plan is a key way that I practice useful redundancy in communicating with my students. Each week, I am able to place all the various instructions and guidelines in one place. I think, especially in the online environment, that it's my responsibility to help my students stay on schedule, perhaps in line with Wiener's quoting of Lewis Carroll's principle: "What I tell you three times is true."

Week 2: January 14 to January 20

Again, simply follow the directions in order, from top to bottom.

This week, we will read a profile of a physician and work through topics for Project #1.

Note that I'm asking you to have your readings finished by Tuesday so we can get on track with our normal Discussion schedule for the rest of the term.

What do I do?

What are the specific instructions?

Where do I find the work or the assignment?

When is it due? (All times EST)


  • Kidder, Tracy. "The Good Doctor." The New Yorker. July 10, 2000. If you wish to download this from the library, it's available via LexisNexis Academic Universe. Or, you could find the actual copy of the magazine and read it there.

  • WatW: Aristotle 4-6.

  • BH: "Using a Thesis to Shape Your Material" 28-32

You’ll want to have read by Tuesday morning, January 16, so you can complete the quiz and start thinking about the Discussions.



Quiz #2 can be found under the Quizzes organizer on the course Homepage.

For the quizzes, again remember three things:

  1. I am looking for VERY short answers.

  2. The quiz answers can be informal. I don’t grade them on spelling, etc.

  3. I am not looking to trick you. If you’ve read, you should be able to complete the quiz successfully in a few minutes with no problem.

The quiz will be available Tuesday from 9:30 am to midnight. You will have 5 minutes to complete it.

On the Discussion topic "Project #1 topics," write, in a memo addressed to me and the rest of the class, a short description of one or more topics you might write about for Project #1 and explain how you might approach the Project.

Post your topics by Wednesday, January 17.

Follow these instructions carefully:

  1. Post ONE "primary" post to the readings threads.

  2. Post TWO "secondary" posts to the readings threads.

  3. Post TWO "secondary" posts to the "Project #1 topics" Discussion thread, responding to other peoples' topics, replying to comments about your own topic, or asking questions. Let's build a conversation there.

Again, it might be useful for you to review the Discussions guidelines on the syllabus before you work on these.

Post your primary posts by Tuesday evening.

Post your secondary posts by Thursday, January 18, in the evening.


While I want you to post this short assignment to the Discussion thread "Brief profiles," this assignment is separate from the Discussions above.

Briefly interview (a few questions will suffice) someone in a job/profession. Ideally this would be the job/profession you are going to write about for Project #1 (or something close), but I understand some of you might have difficulties doing that. If so, email me--I know people in a lot of different careers and can likely connect you with someone if you're stuck.

Ask that person a few questions about the job they have: Why they chose it? How rewarding (or unrewarding) is it? Would they choose that job again? What are they highs/lows of it? Would they recommend that others choose a similar job (and why)? etc.

There's no exact length for the profile you write. I think, given the constraints of time, that it would be fine if it were about 150 words. It's okay if it's considerably longer, especially if it helps you build your Project #1.

Please post your short profile by Saturday, January 20.


1) Page 144.
2) Page 145 from Cybernetics. The reference is to Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.