Frustrated student in library

Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate

Questions for teaching-learning discussion groups or individual reflection

In this week’s Teaching Professor Blog, I offered strategies to help move our conversations about teaching beyond the “tips and tricks” to the kind of thought-provoking discussions that help promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers.

Here I have outlined potential questions that can be used in a discussion group or for individual reflection. The exercise centers on those unpopular assignments that we sometimes give our students and is based on an article in this Journal on Excellence in College Teaching:

DeWall, N., (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes Generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (4), 77-91.

A synopsis: Nichole DeWall gives students an assignment they hate. Students must scan, paraphrase, and memorize a self-selected passage or poem from one of the assigned texts. Then they recite the memorized material in private to her, and teach the passage to classmates in a short, interactive presentation. Finally, they write a low-stakes reflective essay about the experience.

The article explores the rationale behind the assignment, why it’s appropriate, especially for Millennial students, and what they learn by doing it.

Even though it’s an article about an assignment few faculty will ever use, it’s well-worth reading and even more worth discussing because it raises issues much larger than the details of her assignment.

POTENTIAL DISCUSSION TOPICS AND QUESTIONS

Should we give students an assignment they hate?

“The assignment’s ability to make students uncomfortable increases its value.” (p. 80)

“Piercing Millennial students’ egos allows them to be open to truly transformational learning. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our Millennial student’s native worlds.” (p. 80)

“Students sharpen their metacognitive skills when they memorize, teach, and reflect upon their poems; they also leave my classes with constant companions that may just help them make sense out of their lives. For these reasons, I continue to ask my students to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues, bewilderment).” (p. 87)

How do students see classrooms? Do they act the same way in the classroom as they do everywhere else because we have failed to make classroom spaces look and feel different from everywhere else?

Does an assignment that causes discomfort produce a different kind of learning? If so, how is it different and is it a better kind of learning?

How much discomfort is enough, too much, and how does a teacher make that determination?

Most faculty work to make classroom environments feel safe and comfortable. Does giving an assignment that makes students uncomfortable compromise that objective?

How many of our assignments cause discomfort? Enough? Not enough?

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self-regulated learners

Ways to Promote Student Responsibility for Learning

As noted in the Teaching Professor Blog post, student responsibility for learning can happen in three different arenas. First and foremost, students are responsible for their learning. Teachers can encourage and support learning endeavors in a variety of ways, but students must do the learning.

Second, students should have responsibility for all those tasks that improve learning and develop learning skills—the kind of tasks teachers do so regularly that students have come to believe that they are teacher responsibilities. It’s the teachers’ job to tell them what’s important, review what they need to know and provide every assignment detail. However, doing for students what they should be doing on their own creates dependent learners. They’re unable to make decisions or don’t make very good ones, and they resist assuming responsibility for the very parts of the learning process that enable them to learn.

Finally, there are responsibilities that students could share with teachers. Students could be given some say in how the class is run, how they will learn the content, and how that learning is assessed. Students can be involved in providing feedback and evaluating the work of their peers. Sharing responsibilities with students empowers them as learners.

Teachers frequently talk with students about their responsibilities as learners, but telling students doesn’t usually garner the desired results. However, a number of faculty are using strategies, approaches, activities, and assignments designed in a way that they can’t be completed without students assuming some responsibility for learning. Here’s a collection of ideas with references for those that have been published.

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students taking notes in class

Strategies to Develop Student Note-Taking Skills

Most students aren’t particularly effective note-takers. They don’t know the best way to go about it, they’re not often challenged on the quality of their note-taking, and they’re rarely motivated to take good notes.

Fortunately, there are techniques you can quickly and easily introduce in your courses that will drive better student note-taking. Maryellen Weimer, PhD, shares them in Take Note: Strategies to Develop Student Note-Taking Skills. Just in time for the fall semester, we’re making this online course available to Faculty Focus Premium members.

In this idea-filled, on-demand program, Dr. Weimer—longtime editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and blog—provides research-based and classroom-tested developmental strategies. By focusing on exercises and activities that make the benefits of good note-taking plain to students, Dr. Weimer provides you with tools that are not just instructional but also motivational—designed to get your students to care about a subject they might otherwise find uninspiring.

Watch the intro to the program:

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college student studying

Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers

Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

  • Elaborative interrogation—generating an explanation for why some fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation—explaining how new information is related to what is already known, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization—writing summaries of text content to expedite learning the material
  • Highlighting/underlining—marking potentially important text passages while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic—using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text—attempting to form mental images of text material while reading or listening
  • Rereading—reading text material again after having read it initially
  • Practice testing—self-testing or taking practice tests on the material to be learned
  • Distributed practice—scheduling practice so that it spreads study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice—mixing different kinds of problems or materials within a single study session

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Principles for the Professional Growth of Teaching: A Collection of Resources

New Approaches, Instruments and Emphases

Eddy, S. L., Converse, M., and Wenderoth, M. P., (2015).  PORTAAL:  A classroom observation tool assessing evidence-base teaching practice for active learning in large science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.  Cell Biology Education, 14 (Summer), 1-16.
Identifies best practices in active learning and designs an observational tool that can be used to document the extent to which instructors incorporate these practices in their classrooms.

Hoon, A., Oliver, E., Szpakowska, K., and Newton, P., (2015).  Use of the Stop, Start, Continue method is associated with the production of constructive qualitative feedback by students in higher education.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40 (5), 755-767.
A simple feedback mechanism improved the quality of student provided feedback.

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H. M., Gilbert. S. L., and Weiman, C. E. (2013).  The classroom observation protocol for undergraduate STEM (COPUS):  A new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices.  Cell Biology Education, 12, (Winter), 618-625.
Focuses on what students are doing and what the instructor is doing at 2 minute intervals during a class.  Does not offer judgments but identifies behaviors.  At 1.5 hours of training, observations are reliable. Can be used in individual faculty, departments and/or institutions.

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Female college student studying

Student-Led Advice on How to Study

Most of the advice students hear on how to study comes from teachers. We offer it verbally in class before and after exams, in online communications, and on the syllabus. We talk about study strategies during office hours, especially when we meet with students who aren’t doing well in the course. The problem is students don’t always follow our wise advice.

I was once observing a physics class and, at the end of the session, the teacher reminded students that there was a test next week. Students went about packing up and preparing to leave, but then he said he had a handout with some advice on how to study for the exam. As he began distributing it, the packing up stopped. Book bags were put down; students began reading the handout.

When a copy of the handout came to me, I saw why students were so interested. The handout contained study recommendations from students who had taken the class previously. They were identified by name and beside their name was the grade they’d received in the class (not something to be done without student permission, which this professor did get).

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Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies that Work [Transcript]

You see it in reading assignments that go unread … homework that’s poorly done, or not done at all … course assignments that are sloppy and incomplete. And, sadly, what you see next is students dropping out. You don’t have to sit by and watch that happen, though. You can intervene with corrective guidance that will help get unprepared students better aligned with the demands and expectations of college.

This transcript from our online seminar will help you discover a host of valuable practices and techniques to help you:

  • Engage students
  • Gain student commitment to performing at a college level
  • Guide students to the right choices and habits in their coursework
  • Encourage students to embrace ideas of accountability and personal responsibility

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A Handout for Students on Note-taking

When it comes to class notes, we all know that students would much rather get the teacher’s notes or PowerPoints than write their own for lots of reasons. They’re getting the content straight from the expert. It makes note-taking less work, and they don’t have to decide what to write down. Further, lots of students don’t like to take notes, and many don’t take very good ones. Having the teacher’s notes keeps students covered if they don’t feel like taking notes or attending class, but the research on note-taking is clear: students need to take notes for themselves.

I wrote this article to help you explain to your students not only why they need to take notes but how to take good notes—the kind of notes that become valuable resources when studying for an exam.

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Partially Annotated Bibliography on Critical Thinking

Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

To develop critical skills in students in a course, instructors must have the explicit goal of developing those skills as well as training in ways to do so. Critical thinking does not progress by accident.

Bloom, B., & Associates. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: David McKay.

Braun, N. M. (2004). Critical thinking in the business curriculum. Journal of Education for Business, 79(4), 232-236.

Nora Braun of Augsburg College points out that in the business world, making decisions is a daily occurrence. Discussions, debates, and guided questioning are some of the techniques that should be used in business courses to classify and evaluate the enormous quantity of available information.

Bookfield, S. D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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studying in the library

When Saying ‘No’ to a Student Might Be Saying ‘Yes’ to Learning!

Last summer, I reached the point of eligibility for early retirement. I thought about taking the leap but did not. I decided to keep teaching, asking myself, how hard could it be to teach for another few years? Harder than I imagined, as it turned out.

For most of my career teaching composition in community colleges, my students have tended to be adults, older and more mature than the typical high school graduate. Increasingly, however, my students are young, immature, and not particularly well attuned to the expectations of college teachers. A recent incident with one such student taught me something about the value of saying “no” to students.

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