7 A Panel of Former Students Promote the Value of a Major Class Assignment

Dr. Julie Dodd

Course: Multimedia Writing (JOU 3109)


Students put more time and effort into an assignment when they personally connect with the assignment. When the students are intrinsically motivated, they find the assignment to have value beyond a grade and that outlook leads to enhanced learning, greater engagement, and increased creativity (Di Domenico, S. I. and Ryan, R. M., 2017).

I have found inviting former students to speak on a panel about a major assignment in the course enhances the current students’ intrinsic motivation in working on the assignment. By structuring a guided Q&A with the student panel, the current students learn strategies for taking on the assignment. Also, having the former students discuss the assignment’s impact on them provides validation of the assignment in a way that makes the assignment more relevant to the current students, going beyond the endorsement that the lab instructors and I would make for the assignment.

You can identify a major assignment in your course for this panel activity. For me, the assignment was the major reporting assignment in Multimedia Writing (JOU 3109), an introductory media writing course in the College of Journalism and Communications. The students were required to determine a topic for a publishable story with an environmental, health, science or technology focus and then report and write the story. We refer to the assignment as the EHST story. Students would receive extra credit if their story was published in a commercial publication – print or online.

Because Multimedia Writing is an introductory course, most of the students had never done independent reporting, identified expert sources to interview, conducted interviews, or pitched story ideas to editors. Some students found the assignment to be intimidating or not relevant to them if they didn’t plan on being reporters.

The panel discussion by former students of the course helped current students understand strategies for success with the assignment. The panelists also helped the current students realize the value of getting published (regardless of a student’s career goals) and of skills gained through the EHST assignment.

I had the former students visit my face-to-face course. But this activity can be modified to have former students as guests via teleconferencing.

The success of this activity depends on several factors:

  • The Timing of the Panel – Consider when the panel will be most effective in terms of your students’ work on the assignment. You don’t want the panel just a few days before the final deadline for the assignment.
  • Your Preparation of Your Students – Many students consider a day with guest speakers to be a good day to skip class. Guest speakers sometimes talk about topics not directly connected with the course content, and students assume there is no assignment related to the speaker and, perhaps, no exam questions based on the guest speaker. You need to make the case for why the panel is important to the students’ success with the assignment and also include a small graded activity.
  • Your Preparation of the Panelists – Most students have never been a guest speaker in class before. They may be hesitant to agree to speak because they aren’t confident in what they would say. They may envision that they would need to write a speech. You want to provide directions to help the panelists know how to prepare to be on the panel.
  • Your Effectiveness as Panel Moderator – Take an active role in leading the panel. (You are not sitting in the audience and watching.) Your role is to guide the panel discussion. Instead of giving each student an allocated amount of time to speak, you need to lead the conversation by asking questions and providing every panelist the opportunity to speak. As you introduce the panel, you can let them – and your students – know that you may interrupt to ask for clarification. You also can help move along the discussion if a panelist becomes too long-winded and you can keep the discussion positive.

Assignment Goals/Outcomes

Based on listening to former students of the course talk about their experience with EHST assignment, the current students will identify strategies for tackling the assignment and will be more likely to try and get their stories published.

Assignment Setup (Instructor)

  1. Include “Special Event: Panel of Former Students” as a class session in your syllabus. This sends the message that this activity that is part of the course design.
  2. Determine the students to invite to be guest speakers on the panel. I’d recommend inviting 4-6 students to participate in this activity. Having several students enables you to include a wider range of students (i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, major, career goals), which helps convey that the assignment isn’t useful just to one particular group of students in the course. Some students in Multimedia Writing excelled in every assignment. Others struggled throughout much of the course but found the EHST story to be their best work because it was the most independent assignment of the course. I made sure to include some of the students who weren’t seen as always being the best in every assignment.
  3. Determine if the panel will be face-to-face in class or through a videoconferencing platform and make arrangements. If the panel is speaking via videoconferencing you will need to obtain and email log-in information for the panelists. If the panel will be in a face-to-face class, you may need to make arrangements for the panelists, like having chairs and handheld microphones.
  4. Invite the former students to be on the panel. I’d recommend making the invitation at least two weeks before the class. Students may need to make arrangement with another instructor to miss class or change their work schedule in order to participate. Provide guidance for the student guests about their role. This is a very important step. Many students have never been a guest speaker in a class before. They may be hesitant to agree to be a speaker because they think they’ll have to give a speech. I sent an initial invitation to provide the basics. (See sample correspondence – Panel Invitation)
  5. Once the students agreed, I sent a followup with more information, including the questions I planned to ask and a list of the other panelists. (See sample correspondence – Panel Directions)
  6. Share information about the guest speakers for the students to read prior to class. That can be shared through Canvas. I included links to the former students’ LinkedIn profiles so the current students could learn more about them. Current students told me that reading the profiles of the panelists — who were just a year or two ahead of them — motivated them to consider what they should be doing now to reach the level of professional success the panelists had achieved.
  7. Explain to your students  the importance of the guest panel prior to their visit to class and on the day the panelists are in class. I’ve sometimes found that students consider guest speakers to be a day to skip class. You want to let them know the value of what the former students will share with them — helping them be more successful with the EHST assignment and in sharing insights about preparing for internships and jobs.
  8. Explain the graded activity the students are to complete. The activity: Write three tips you found useful, a question about the assignment you had that the panelists answered, and a question that you still have about the assignment. Students can submit their response as a written response to be collected as students exit class or in Canvas.

Student Instructions

  1. Learn about the former students who will be visiting with us by reading their LinkedIn profiles.
  2. Before the panel, make a list of questions you have about the EHST assignment that you hope the former students can answer. Also include questions you have from reading their LinkedIn bios, such as their internships and involvement in student organizations.
  3. Refer to your list of questions during the panel presentation – noting which questions are answered and adding new questions you have as they speak.
  4. Ask a question if you have an opportunity to do so.
  5. Take notes on what you find to be the most helpful insights and advice. Use this activity as a practice opportunity for collecting direct quotes and paraphrases. Try to get at least one full-sentence direct quote from each speaker.
  6. For a graded activity, write three tips you found useful, a question about the assignment you had that the panelists answered, and a question that you still have about the assignment.

Grading (Instructor/TA)

10 points possible – 2 points for each of the five items.

Use the students’ responses to structure a followup discussion in the next class meeting. [The responses also can help you as the instructor improve your directions and provide additional assistance for the students.]

Tips and Suggestions for Structuring and Moderating the Panel

Questions/Topics to Structure the Panel Discussion

  1. Please introduce yourself  – your name, your hometown, and your major. Include if you have a minor, an outside concentration or are in a certificate program. [Having the students introduce themselves helps get them warmed up.]
  2. What was your environmental, health, science or technology story? How did you decide on that story focus? If your story was published, where was it published?
  3. Share a learning experience from doing that story – finding a story idea, locating expert sources, taking photos to go with your story, etc.
  4. What was a challenge you encountered in working on your story and how did you overcome or adjust to the challenge?
  5. What is something you enjoyed about your experience of working on your EHST story?
  6. What advice do you have about working with editors? [We don’t want to discuss specific people but do want to offer suggestions that could be specific to The Alligator, The Gainesville Sun, your hometown news organization, etc.]
  7. Briefly explain a media experience you’ve had and how that’s helped you professionally. This could be an internship, being a member of a professional student organization, or attending a professional conference.
  8. What is a course you’ve taken that you would recommend for others? That could be an elective in the college or a course in another college, a study abroad program, etc. [We don’t want to endorse a specific instructor but want to talk about how a course/certificate program can be useful.]
  9.  What is a piece of advice that you’d give the students that you haven’t already mentioned?

Tips & Suggestions for Other Instructors

  1. Before class, ask a student in the back of the classroom/auditorium to let you know if there’s a problem with hearing any of the speakers. Check with that student from time to time and alert any of the panelists who needs to speak louder.
  2.  As you begin the questions, mention that the panelists have the option to pass on a question. Sometimes a panelists won’t want to speak to a topic or may recognize that the point he/she would want to make already has been made by another panelist.
  3. Change the order of which panelist answers the question first/last.
  4. During the panel discussion, include 2-3 times when students in the class can ask questions – following up on the topic being discussed at that time. I’ve found that leaving student questions until the last five minutes doesn’t always work well, as students may think if they don’t ask questions that class will end sooner.
  5. A good last question for the panelists is: What last piece of advice would you like to offer?
  6. End class about 5 minutes early and encourage students with questions to talk with the panelists.
Send an email to each panelist, thanking the student for participating on the panel and, possibly, send a copy of the email to the department chair for the student’s major. That email can help the department chair be aware of student leadership – and your class activity. You can use the same form email for all panelists and make modifications to personalize each email.

Bonus outcomes of the panel activity. Current students would tell me that they got involved in a professional student organization because they now knew someone in the organization. Panlists would become mentors to students they met in class. Insights I gained from hearing the panelists helped me make adjustments to the course and learn more about student organizations and courses and majors outside the college.


Sample Correspondence – Panel Directions

Sample Correspondence – Panel Invitation

Keywords: guest speakers, motivation, intrinsic motivation, former students, major assignment


Di Domenico, S. I. and Ryan, R. M. (2017, March 24). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Retrieved from Frontiers in Human Neruocience https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5364176/

Svinicki, M. D. &  McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (14th ed.).

Wiggins, G. J. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd edition).


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