Spotlight is published twice each semester by the Office of Assessment and Continuous Improvement in the College of Education to highlight promising practices in assessment and continuous improvement.

This edition of the Spotlight examines strategies for providing effective feedback on students’ writing, suggestions on understanding the College’s annual rankings, and tips for managing online thesis and dissertation defenses.

Mission Statement

To deliver a personal, affordable, and top-ranked education for students who want to collaborate with renowned faculty to solve problems and effect change in the field of education in our community, our country, and around the world.

Vision Statement

A world-class college of education: leading research, engaging our communities, and preparing education and mental health professionals for innovation and impact.


  • Collaboration and Engagement
  • Commitment to Community
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Equity
  • Excellence
  • Innovation
  • Integrity

Prepared by Jeremy Penn with support from Michelle Yu and the Continuous Improvement Committee (Chris Annicella, Emily Campbell, Brian Douglas, Lois Gray, and Nancy Langguth).

To share a promising practice in a future edition of the Spotlight you are using in your classroom, in your program, or in your department, please contact

Classroom Assessment 

Providing Effective Feedback on Students’ Writing

A famous scene from the 1987 movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, has John Candy’s character, Del Griffith, attempting to drive Steve Martin in a vehicle with a melted speedometer. “You have no working gauges?” asks the state trooper who pulled them over for speeding.

“No, not a one,” replies Del. “However, the radio still works, funny as that may seem, with all this mess, the radio’s the only thing that’s really working good and it’s as clear as a bell, don’t ask me how!”

Imagine how difficult it would be to safely operate a vehicle without the feedback provided by functioning gauges! In the same way, feedback is essential in developing students’ ability to communicate effectively through writing. Unfortunately, not all feedback is equally effective. A toolkit developed by Central Michigan University’s Quality Initiative and Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning summarized research on creating feedback to support and motivate learning. Some of their top suggestions for effective feedback included:

  • Require students to submit early drafts of papers to allow time for feedback and revision. Requiring early drafts also ensures students cannot wait until the end of the semester to start a major writing project.
  • Avoid providing too much feedback, as it can overwhelm students and hamper their motivation.
  • Do not attempt to copyedit student papers; rather, if a student repeats an error throughout a paper, mark it once and request the student find and correct the other instances of this error themselves.
  • Practice clear communication when writing your comments back to students.
  • Include positive comments that encourage students and reinforce what they are doing well.
  • Use a rubric to support clear communication of your feedback and, for the final draft, to support the assignment of a final grade.

College Data 

Understanding College Rankings

Each spring the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Graduate Education Schools rankings are released. While many people hear about the annual rankings and whether the college’s ranking improved, fewer people understand how the rankings are determined. The purpose of this brief article is to summarize how these rankings are determined and provide some insight into the factors that contribute to the college’s annual ranking.

The first step in the annual rankings is the submission of data. The Dean’s Office and the Office of Assessment and Continuous Improvement in the College of Education collaborate to submit updated data to U.S. News and World Report. The data submitted include a wide range of information about the college such as enrollment, programs of study, tuition, and many others.

At the same time the college is working on submitting its data, U.S. News and World Report conducts two surveys: a survey of education school deans and deans of graduate studies at education schools, and a survey of school superintendents, school hiring contacts, and professionals who hire graduates from graduate education programs. These two surveys are used in the ranking methodology.

After data collection is completed, U.S. News and World Report uses the collected data to develop the rankings. For each variable, the results were standardized as z-scores and rescaled so the top school received a score of 100. The variables used in the rankings are:

  • Quality assessment (40% weight): Comprised of two U.S. News surveys (of education school deans and deans of graduate studies at education schools and of school superintendents, school hiring contacts and professionals who hire graduates from the colleges).
  • Research activity (30% weight): Comprised of two school-reported research variables (total research expenditures averaged across the two most recent years and average research expenditures per faculty member).
  • Student selectivity (18% weight): Comprised of three school-reported variables (doctoral program acceptance rate, mean GRE quantitative score for entering doctoral students, and mean GRE verbal score for entering doctoral students).
  • Faculty resources (12% weight): Comprised of three school-reported variables (doctoral degrees awarded per faculty member, student faculty ratio, and percentage of faculty with awards (such as editorships or research awards)).

Notably, the variables that U.S. News and World Report has selected to rank graduate colleges of education exclude many other factors that are important for interpreting the rankings, such as the mix of degree programs located in the college, the size, scope, and funding of research and service centers in the college, the mission of the college, and the student and community population served by the college. While the U.S. News and World Report rankings do provide some information about graduate colleges of education, they are by no means authoritative about the extent to which colleges achieve their mission or the level of service provided by colleges to students and communities. That being said, many institutions, including the University of Iowa, use the rankings in their marketing and recruitment since many prospective students look at the rankings when choosing the graduate program that is right for them. For additional insight about college rankings, visit the extensive research literature – including many articles by faculty from the College of Education – available through the University of Iowa library.

Promising Practice

Making the Most of Online Thesis and Dissertation Defenses

During the coronavirus pandemic, graduate programs have had to adjust the way graduate thesis and dissertation defenses are managed. The University of Iowa Graduate College has prepared extensive guidance on best practices for remote thesis and dissertation defenses. Key best practices identified for committee chairs included:

  • Testing the technology prior to the meeting.
  • Identifying a point person to maintain smooth operation of the meeting technology during the meeting.
  • Communicate with committee members and the student about the URL for the meeting and to allow attendees a chance to practice in advance with their computers.
  • Having a preferred strategy for asking questions during the presentation.
  • Utilizing the “wait room” feature in Zoom to allow the student to step out of the meeting during the committee’s discussion.

Students also need to take additional steps when preparing for an online thesis or dissertation defense. In this helpful article in Nature, Alyssa Frederick described what she learned from defending her dissertation at a distance. Important suggestions she had for students included:

  • Work with your committee chair to understand your institution’s requirements and to identify, if your defense is successful, what paperwork must be completed and how that paperwork is to be submitted.
  • Spend a few minutes at the start of your talk describing how the meeting technology works and how participants are to ask questions.
  • Be prepared and have a back-up plan in case your computer malfunctions, your power goes out, your internet is unstable, or other unexpected issues arise.
  • Find a suitable space for your presentation. If you do not have a suitable space at home, you might consider reserving a conference room at a library or another location with stable and reliable internet.
  • Practice your presentation using the same technology and space you will use for your defense.

Keeping these strategies and tips in mind, even as more face-to-face instruction resumes in the coming months, is important as providing students an opportunity for online thesis and dissertation defenses appears likely to become an expectation of many students in the future.

Future Opportunities