If You Can’t Write a Letter of Rec for Every Student, Change the Way You Teach

 TLDR: Replace your course rubric with a letter of recommendation.

It’s time that we take responsibility for knowing our students. If you can’t write a letter of recommendation for your best students, you should rethink your teaching. If we center the letter of recommendation at the core of our assessment strategy, we can create a more student-centered classroom that recognizes and advances the goals of students.

Start the Semester by Drafting an Opening Paragraph for Each Student

Start off the semester by getting to know your students. Whether you use an icebreaker or an ungraded formative writing assignment, ask your students what they’re interested in and how your class can help them grow. Ask them what their majors are and how they envision those degrees helping them in life. Ask them what they’re passionate about and how college can help to deepen that passion. Ask them how they got to where they are and what they’ve done to prepare themselves for life after college.

Take the student responses and write a paragraph about who each student is, what they want, and what you can do in your class to help them. If you don’t do anything else, you’ve already shown interest in each of your students and thought about how your class relates to them.

How Does Your Course Help Your Student Grow?

[pullquote]Can you identify something you did for each student in your class that helped them grow both academically and towards their long term goals?[/pullquote]

Now that you have a sense of who your students are and what they are hoping to gain from your class, you can use that to assess their performance in their class. How does the project they are working on for your course advance their goals while also demonstrating mastery of the course material? How does their participation in in-class debates demonstrate skills like critical reasoning and oratory that will benefit them in both their future jobs and make them better members of society? In what ways do they display leadership in your class? If you see them struggling, can you coach them on ways to develop both their grasp on course material and soft skills?

While it’s relatively easy to find things that the best students did well in your course, the goal in using these letters of recommendation is reorienting your teaching towards helping each student grow. What did the best student do in your course that they couldn’t / didn’t do before? How did you help other students improve their writing, speaking, or analytical skills? As the semester goes along, can you identify something you did for each student in your class that helped them grow both academically and towards their long term goals?

End of Semester Reflection

At the end of the semester, have students reflect on what they have learned from your class and how they’ve grown. Give them back copies of whatever they wrote at the beginning of the semester or remind them of what they said, and have them evaluate their advancement. Then meet with each student for 15 minutes and talk with them about the class.

Students don’t always recognize the underlying intentions behind various course activities, so take this opportunity to ask them if they got what you were hoping for out of your activities and class as a whole. This is useful feedback in the iterative design of your class, so take seriously their feedback, both positive and negative.

Sample Letter of Recommendation

Dear Search Committee,

I am happy to give the strongest possible recommendation on behalf of Jane Doe. I had the pleasure of teaching Jane in my history of science course at the University of Oklahoma. I think Jane will succeed in whatever she decides to do next, but she seems particularly suited to graduate studies. She is one of the rare students who values learning over grades. Based on her commitment, leadership, and creativity, I believe that she will succeed both in pursuing a master’s degree in Organizational Dynamics and as an entrepreneur.

In talking to Jane, I have been struck by the diversity of her life experiences. Before taking my class, Jane spent a semester abroad studying development in West Africa. She drew on this experience in my class by researching the history of mining and metallurgy in Ghana

Jane’s leadership was also noteworthy. Early in the course, she took the lead on a group project in which each team edited a Wikipedia article related to our course. One of Jane’s teammates became interested in the subject they were working on and edited an additional article in his own time. Although Jane had nothing to gain personally, she came to my office and advocated on the other student’s behalf for extra credit.

Jane would make a great addition to your program. Based on my experience teaching graduate students, I feel that Jane’s internal motivation will propel her through the sometimes fatiguing and frustrating challenges of completing a master’s degree.On many of the assignments for the course, Jane not only exceeded the requirements but provided genuinely entertaining, humorous, and interesting contributions. I am pleased to give Jane the strongest recommendation possible and am sure that she would be a valuable addition to any graduate program.

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