Why Templates?

26 January 2023

A student shared some feedback — well, a critique — that I’ve been ruminating on ever since. She didn’t like that I gave students templates for their homework. She said I was micromanaging them; she felt constrained. This has stuck with me.

It’s funny, a number of years ago, my college was discussing the retention, tenure, and promotion (RTP) process and some folks begged for a template (I was one of them). Others said it would stifle creativity and that part of what was being evaluated was our ability to put together a coherent file. Some years later the Dean make an RTP toolkit to help faculty put their files together. Know what it included? A template! And the magical thing that happened after providing a template, was that faculty (generally speaking) felt like they had a better idea of what to put in the file and how to organize it in a way that made sense to the review committee. As someone who has served on RTP review committees, I appreciate it when folks follow the template. It makes their files easier to follow and I’m more confident I didn't miss anything they were trying to include.

The template worked!

Templates are everywhere. In my graduate program at Gallaudet, we often have templates for assignments. Part of my student’s critique was that templates treated students as if they were immature. If that were the case, they wouldn’t show up in graduate work. But templates aren’t just in graduate work. Within the academy, when we submit articles to journals, they must be formatted a specific way. Many journals provide templates. Universities provide templates for theses and doctoral dissertations. Legal documents must be formatted a specific way — that’s a template. Medical charts must be filled in a particular way. That’s a template, too. Official government documents also require templates.

Templates are everywhere!

But I value feedback…and critiques of my teaching. Here’s what I think I need to change. I need to preface the use of templates. Perhaps I’ll share this blog with students! But I’ll explain that before I used templates, students struggled with these particular assignments and often missed part of the assignment. Even though what needed to be included was in the instructions and in the rubric, things were still missed. Once I started using templates, this problem was resolved. And I can’t say that creativity has been stifled either. For example, I provide slide templates for presentations. These templates show what the slides should include but I tell students they’re free to play with the design of the slides as long as the required content is there. And I see the most beautiful slides and they’re creatively arranged and crucially still have all the required elements.

This was the critique of one student and while I disagree with her assessment, I recognize that I can do more to explain why I’m taking this approach to teaching. Hopefully, that’ll help students understand the approach and realize that one form of creativity is working within the boundaries of a prescribed template.