Teaching Continuity at Caltech  /  Advice & Guidance  /  Assignments and Exams

Working with TAs Online

As announced on March 18, 2022, the Institute will return fully to in-person instruction by Monday, April 4, 2022. Resources for remote and online teaching are provided on this site if Caltech must shift to remote instruction in the future.

Outside of special emergency permissions granted during the pandemic, Caltech's accreditation is limited to in-person instruction.

Please explore the tabs below according to the types of assignments and exams you would like to assign in your course.

Low Stakes Assignments and Quizzes

"Low stakes" assignments and quizzes may contribute only a small percentage to students' final grades, but they can really help provide structure and feedback to students in an online environment. Low stakes course elements may be evaluated based on completion and/or correctness; in addition to helping students stay on track with studying and engaging in the class, they can give instructors and TAs insight into students' understanding and difficulties. The recommendations and resources here will help you get started.

  • Assign "minute paper" reflections, due after students have attended live or watched lecture recording(s) for the day or week. Minute papers can be submitted just like any other Canvas assignments. Minute paper prompts often include some version of two questions: e.g., "What was the most important thing you learned?" and "What question still remains?" (Lang 2016). Student may only write a sentence or two, but that extra processing can make a difference in their learning and give you a sense (which may be harder to obtain online) of their insights and confusions.
  • Give online quizzes, for example, on concepts from reading or other assignments to be done before class. Canvas quizzes can be automatically graded. A few well-selected questions can emphasize important concepts
  • Assign discussion forum posts in response to a discussion prompt, asking students to pose a question about course material, or inviting comments/critiques of articles or other reading. Canvas offers discussion forums. If assigning forum posts, give students a specific time window for initial posts; if you would like students to read and comment on one another's' ideas, provide a second time window when they should return for further discussion.

Quantitative and coding assignments, problem sets, and exams

Here are some recommendations and resources for distributing, collecting, and grading assignments, problems sets, and exams that are quantitative and coding-based:

  • Assign work as usual, with additional attention to clarity of tasks and instructions. Students may have a more difficult time asking for clarifications online than they would through informal Q&A in person before or after class. Share assignment documents via Canvas or your preferred method of communication.
  • Adjust your collaboration and/or honor code instructions to account for students working remotely and online.
    • Consider how students are likely to connect with each other: e.g., through voice, video, and text chat and conferencing applications, shared digital whiteboards, and by sharing documents with each other. You may need to be more specific about what they can and cannot share when collaborating.
    • For exams and individual assignments, consider that students may have to access assignments, documents, and other resources digitally, rather than on paper (for example, not all will have access to printers). Does this change any of the instructions you would normally give them with respect to the honor code?
  • Collect work via Canvas or Gradescope. Both of these online resources are secure and FERPA-compliant, allowing both collection and return of student work, grades, and feedback.
    • Caltech is arranging an institution-wide license for Gradescope, an application that facilitates grading of quantitative, problem-based, and coding assignments and exams (as soon as it is ready, instructions will be added under the Technology and Tools section of this site. Gradescope accepts images of students' written work as well as other digital files and allows batch grading of problems based on shared rubrics and point allocations, and simplifies sharing feedback with students digitally. You can begin to explore Gradescope's functionality here.
    • Canvas assignments accept PDFs and other digital files, and allow for overall comments annotation, voice/video comments, and use of rubrics. Gradescope also has batch grading/feedback and rubric functions available.
  • You may also opt to collect and return assignments and exams via email, though this tends to be much more labor-intensive in an ongoing way for classes with more than a very small number of studentes. Please be sure to use a Caltech email address for security and FERPA compliance. Emailing assignments will be easier if you can:
    • Give students specific instructions for submission and formatting, including file types you will accept.
    • Remind students to check images or scans of handwritten work for legibility and (if you wish) combine multiple pages into one document.
    • Provide a filename template to students so that you and TAs can easily keep track of their work: e.g., lastname_firstname_exam2_date.
  • Whenever possible, provide solutions to problem sets, so that students can review their individual feedback in the context of a complete example of effective work.

Writing assignments and writing-based exams or final papers

Here are some recommendations and resources for distributing, collecting, and grading assignments and exams that primarily involve student writing:

  • Assign work as usual, with additional attention to clarity of tasks and instructions (as students may have a more difficult time asking for clarifications than through informal Q&A in person before or after class); share assignment documents via email, Canvas, or your preferred method of communication.
  • Collect written work via an "assignment" in Canvas. While you may opt to collect assignments via email, setting up Canvas assignments makes it easy for an instructor to see who has and has not submitted an assignment. It also allows you to easily scaffold assignments, by setting up draft assignments to be turned in before the final assignment.
  • Using compare documents in MS Word. If you collect multiple drafts of papers on Canvas, you can easily examine the progress individual students are making in revision using Word's compare documents function. This feature will allow you to quickly see how a later draft differs from an earlier draft and help you determine if students are moving toward your learning goals. Having students compare their own draft documents can become a useful occasion for reflection on their work as writers.
  • Comments in MS Word. If you ask students to submit writing assignments in MS Word, you can use Word's "Review" options to mark-up student writing. Word makes it easy to add comments to student writing and to track changes you make to a document.
  • Comments via screen-capture. Going a step beyond making written comments on a document, you can record audio or screen-capture comments for students on their writing. This may be a nice way to connect individually with students while teaching online. Furthermore, the efficacy of audio feedback on student writing has long been supported by research. Detailed instructions for creating screen-capture feedback are on the Hixon Writing Center website.
  • Direct students to utilize one-to-one tutorial support offered by the Hixon Writing Center (HWC). HWC Writing Specialists will continue to be available to support all undergrads, grads, and postdocs throughout winter and spring terms. These services have moved online and can be accessed from off-campus. Updates about making appointments and the nature of appointments will be posted to the HWC webpage: https://writing.caltech.edu/

Reach out to Hixon Writing Center Director Susanne Hall for support. Prof. Hall can help assist you with any of the above strategies or in other matters related to assigning and teaching writing online. Her email is seh@caltech.edu.

Other kinds of assignments and exams

Online environments can support speaking and presentation assignments, oral exams, and group projects. As these vary widely, please contact CTLO to discuss your unique circumstances and discuss the possibilities.