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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
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Criminal Justice Academy (CJA) Instructor Toolkit: Planning and Assessing Lessons

Whether you’re a new faculty member or a seasoned instructor, we hope you’ll find new ideas and practical resources for teaching criminal justice courses

The Three Questions

I. What tasks will my students perform (or perform better) as a result of this lesson? 
II. What activities and assignments can my students do before, during, and after class that will help them perform each of these tasks?
III. How will I evaluate my students’ performance of each of these tasks? 

There are three questions that I put at the center of any lesson plan, and for that matter of any syllabus I build, although this section is specifically about the former. The questions can be asked in any order, but this where I start: What tasks will my students perform (or perform better) as a result of this lesson? Second, what activities and assignments can my students do before, during, and after class that will help them perform each of these tasks? Third, how will I evaluate my students’ performance of each of these tasks? In what follows, we consider the theoretical and practical value of asking each question.


Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010). 
Not really a beginner’s book, but beginners nonetheless should know about it. Apart from being deeply thoughtful and explaining many key principles of education, it also has really useful appendices at the end on learning objectives, scoring rubrics, and more.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Lots of very practical assignment ideas here, adaptable for all disciplines.

Huston, Therese. Teaching What You Don’t Know (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). 
Presents an intriguing argument: that the vulnerability new instructors feel in having to teach unfamiliar material is actually a positive opportunity that can bring out your greatest strengths as a teacher.

Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008). 
Hands-on guide that walks the beginner through the basics of teaching, from syllabus construction to grading exams.

Bloom's Taxonomy

The phrase refers to a map of learning goals that are shared by most if not all disciplines, even though dedicated vocabulary within individual disciplines might disguise the commonality of the domains. It originates from work done in the years after WWII by a task force of educators led by Benjamin Bloom. The ideas were developed and revised over decades, so the term refers to the ongoing science of mapping the learning process in order to establish effective learning objectives. Without needing to know too many of its details, there are two important points to note about the taxonomy.

First, the taxonomy subdivides into three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Most scholastic interest centers on the cognitive domain, but the affective and the psychomotor should not be ignored. The affective domain covers essential mental acts such as valuing and prioritizing, without which pure cognition is severely restricted in scope and application. When a student sees the relevance and importance of a topic, learning ability spikes. Psychomotor competencies have less obvious impact in scholastic mastery, unless some specific skill (e.g., in the surgery or laboratory) is called for, yet cognition is thoroughly dependent on them (writing, typing, and reading are all psychomotor skills), and abstract ideas can come alive for a student when asked to model them in some way by means of kinesthetic activities (sketching, miming, etc.). The point is that the more students can visualize a complex idea (i.e., one from the cognitive domain) in both affective and kinesthetic terms, the better they internalize it.

Second, the taxonomy often represents the learning process as a hierarchy of mental acts from recollecting ideas (at the bottom) to synthesizing them (at the top). Yet any examination of our own thought life should show us that the mind shuffles back and forth among stages in no set sequence, and that understanding holistically connects its component acts. As teachers, we can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help us break down an idea into discrete steps and sequence them from the simplest to the most complex. This strategy is also known as “scaffolding.” 
At the same time, however, we should recognize that such articulation is a device for learning rather than a real description of a student’s mental process once mastery is achieved. Even so, it still provides a guide for us to check assignments we give. Have we asked students to jump from stating a formula to analyzing its application in some complicated scenario? Break the assignment into discrete steps, and only then ask your students to synchronize them all in tackling the most challenging task.

Diagnostic Exam

Diagnostic Exam 
Diagnostic tests should be directly aligned with the learning objectives for a course. An entrance diagnostic (as distinct from an exit diagnostic) assesses whatever competencies your students ideally should already possess at the start of semester. Assess only those competencies; don’t complicate the issue by importing extraneous material that distracts performance from the priorities.

Grade the test as clearly and objectively as possible. Do not include any diagnostic results in the final grade, or else students might be tempted to cheat and thus compromise the diagnostic value. If not including the results in the final grade disinclines students from taking the test seriously, emphasize that simply taking the test(s) counts positively for participation regardless of any score achieved.

There is much value in assigning an exit diagnostic near the end of the semester (same rules for administering it as with the entrance diagnostic). It is up to you whether to administer a similar/identical test as the entrance diagnostic or to test for different competencies learned through the semester.

First Day of Class / Group Work / Lecture / Reading Assignments

First Day of Class
Here is how not to teach your first day of class: begin with the roster; distribute syllabus; spend 30 minutes repeating its contents and dealing with practical questions about textbooks, etc.; assign reading for next lesson; dismiss class early. 

The first lesson represents an important opportunity to engage your students and for learning to occur even if they know nothing about the subject and haven’t done any homework. It is understood that some part of the lesson has to be spent on “housekeeping” matters (important dates of exams, getting textbooks, etc.), but that still leaves room for learning something. Here are some key principles:

  • Students draw from prior knowledge. Assume no knowledge about the topic of the course, but they will have opinions and past experience to deploy. Use that resource.
  • Students encounter new knowledge. This can be delivered in various formats: a video clip, short lecture/demonstration, or reading excerpt.
  • Lesson addresses key concepts that inform the course. However modest the disciplinary content covered in the lesson, link it to the big questions and exciting ideas that the course addresses. Aim to convey the intellectual excitement of the topic.
  • Instructor gauges students’ abilities. This can be done informally (by asking questions of students and listening to their comments), but the most effective way to identify where your students are “at” and tailor your material to their needs is through a diagnostic exam.
  • Students relax and interact. It is perfectly appropriate for students to have fun, especially in this first lesson, for it is often through “play” that we learn best.
  • Instructor interacts with students. Making an effort to know students’ names and validate their individual perspectives has a direct and dramatic effect on student motivation and retention. The first meeting is the time to demonstrate its importance, but it should be reinforced every class. Set aside as much time as possible throughout the semester for one-on-one interaction (whether in person or by email) with your students and encourage (even require) them to visit you during your office hours.

Group Work 
This entry deals with informal collaborative learning during class time and does not refer to a high-stakes group project, which requires a lot of detailed preparation. Here are some guidelines:

  • Keep the prompt short, specific, and very clear.
  • Give them slightly less time than comfortably needed, to keep them on task.
  • Organize the task around an end product, such as a list of issues, evidence from a text, specific example/application, etc.
  • Keep groups at optimum size: work in pairs, or threes—five should be the maximum size of a group.
  • Identify different roles/tasks (e.g., a note-taker or someone who looks for counterexamples) to ensure fair division of labor within the group, and let them select.
  • Have a clear system for forming groups. If you don’t want them moving around, then have them confer with the person on their right or left. Or go around the class numbering everyone off according to the number of groups (“threes” in one corner, “fours” in another). This method has the advantage of splitting up cliques of inattentive students.
  • Walk around the groups, being unobtrusive but available. Group work is not a chance for you to finish your grading or check Facebook. Stay engaged, even if you say nothing.
  • Follow up. Check (however summarily) that the work was done, through a quiz or oral/written reports. The learning should occur in the collaborative act itself as much as or more than any post-group debrief.
  • Pull it together with a brief overall summary that hits on the main findings the group work was supposed to generate.

The Lecture 
Opinion about the appropriateness of the lecture remains divided among individuals and disciplines. For some, it remains the classroom staple, the most effective way of conveying knowledge; for others, it is sidelined in favor of more hands-on group- or lab-work and student presentations. Whichever way you lean, consider mixing your style a little. A lecture has the power to inspire and fascinate, but without built-in pauses to process the material in various ways, most of it will flow past students’ ears. Here are some guidelines:

  • Have a clear learning objective for your lecture, just as you would for a lesson, an assignment, and the whole course. Focus your material around being able to answer the question: “By the end of this lecture, my students will have/will be able to…”.
  • Stop every 12–15 minutes for 3–5 minutes to give time for students to process material. See Checklist in section II above for some suggested ways to process the material: paraphrasing in their own words (orally and in writing); posing questions; graphing/drawing; finding analogous examples or counterexamples; applying to a new situation; role play; spotting the deliberate error; rearranging out-of-order elements in proper sequence; brief multiple-choice quiz.
  • Use PowerPoint slides as prompts rather than substitutes-for-handouts. If all the necessary information is on the slide, then students will stop listening to you and copy unthinkingly what is on the slide; little is achieved by this. If you want your students to listen to what you are saying, limit your slide to one key word or to an image that requires interpretation. If, however, you want your PowerPoint slides to be a complete record of your lecture, then email  the slides to students and do something else during the lesson. When you do use PowerPoint, look at the students when you speak, not at the projected image.

Reading Assignments
Students might have the requisite literacy skills, but that does not necessarily mean that they know how to read analytically. Confronted with academic prose, with its complex sentence structure, footnotes, and technical vocabulary, students often either read too quickly, gleaning only vague impressions of content, or too slowly, trying unselectively to take notes on and absorb everything (which inevitably means they lose the forest for the trees and fail to complete the reading). When assigning readings, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Only assign readings that you yourself have thoroughly read and find appropriate.
  • Always relate readings to subsequent work; the students should be able to see that what they read connects to assignments.
  • Discuss with your students how fast/slow and how effectively they read; be willing to adjust amounts to make the workload manageable.
  • Help students know what to look for as they read by giving them one directive question ahead of time.
  • Build quizzes for readings to ensure they are completed and understood. In-class quizzes are effective but not always thorough. Deeper reading comprehension can be achieved with open-book quizzes built in Blackboard for completion before the lesson. With open-book quizzes, questions can be more searching and aimed at understanding rather than merely recollecting material. It takes a little time to build quizzes for Blackboard, but they provide excellent reading guides for students, can be reused for subsequent sections, and are auto-graded.
  • Assume the reading has been done if it has been assigned; plan the lesson on that assumption. Sometimes instructors assign a reading, then spend part of class summarizing it for students who didn’t do it, but in so doing they send a double message, tacitly permitting students not to complete the reading assignment.