Frustrated student in library
Reflections

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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Reflections

Learning to Teach: Are We More Like Our Students Than We Think?

How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

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taking an online course
Worksheets and Checklists

Brainstorming Questionnaire for Designing or Improving a Course with Increased Faculty Presence

Faculty presence is a component of the online classroom that’s sometimes overlooked or underestimated by new online instructors, but it is often the most important determining factor for a student’s success and overall satisfaction in a course.

Instructor presence influences the ways that your students interact with the course content and how they interact with you. So, if you're not there, why should they be?

One of the things I like to think about with my classes is how do I form a better learning community? That's something that a lot of instructors do in a face-to-face classroom. But when it comes to online instruction it's a little more challenging.

I’ve outlined below some opportunities for increasing faculty presence. These are moments during the class when you can reach out to students and demonstrate that you're a real person who's there for them. You’ll find opportunities before the course begins, at various checkpoints, during follow up and interventions, beyond the classroom, and as part of the course wrap-up.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Checklist to Evaluate Faculty Presence in an Existing Class

▢   Do you reach out to students first before the semester begins? ▢   Do you send a welcome email outside the course, perhaps to college email or another email provided by the student? ▢   Do you post...

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online learning
Online Learning

Dos and Don’ts for Providing Effective and Efficient Feedback in the Online Classroom

Best practices consider feedback holistically and address three key elements: timing, target, and nature. It is important for instructors to be deliberate about all three factors and use care when determining when to deliver feedback, what the feedback should say, and what the feedback is meant to accomplish.

This post breaks down the dos and don’ts of effective feedback across four key areas: nature of feedback, time management, emergent technologies, and alternative approaches.

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class participation
Discussion Techniques

Class Participation: What Behaviors Count?

What counts for participation isn’t always addressed when we talk with students about the importance of participation. It’s easy to assume that everybody knows what’s involved—but is that a safe assumption?

When considering what qualifies as participation, some behaviors come to mind quickly—asking questions, answering questions, and making comments. But are those the only options? Maybe interaction in our courses would improve if we broadened the definition and considered some alternatives.

The behaviors that most often count as participation relate to verbal communication—what students say. And we all know that some students, close to 50% according to most studies, are very reluctant to say anything. With broader, more inclusive definitions, we might make it easier for shy, fearful, and reticent students to learn how to answer confidently when they are called on and how to speak up in a discussion when they have something of value to contribute.

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Four puzzle pieces
Classroom Climate

Four Things to Do on the First Day of Class

First impressions are important and you can make favorable ones on the first day of class by doing things just a bit out of the ordinary. Here are some ideas.

  1. If it’s a course where students don’t think they know anything about the content, start by dissecting course title. For each keyword, ask student to report (or write down) the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Make a collection of these on the computer or white board. Accept all associations. Then use the collection to provide an overview of the course, pointing out (where it’s appropriate) that students aren’t as clueless about the content as they may think they are. It’s also a useful way to establish a common foundation, the place on which you can start building the course structure.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Teacher Behaviors Checklist

Master teacher. The idea is a bit of a misnomer. It sounds intimidating. It suggests a long, protracted process—maybe even an elite status. But that’s not what it is at all.

There are no years of required experience. No official credentials. Rather, it is far more aspirational, as it refers to a set of behaviors that distinguish the great teachers from the rest.

Below is a list of 28 traits taken from a study conducted by Buskist & Keeley (2005). Both faculty (N=118) and students (N=917) had to agree for a trait to be listed. Students provided examples of corresponding behaviors (listed in parentheses). Asterisks indicate the top 10 traits rated by students. Caret symbols indicate the top-10 traits rated by faculty.

Master Teacher Traits

^ Accessible (Posts office hours, gives out phone number and e-mail information)

* ^ Approachable/Personable (Smiles, greets students, initiates conversations, invites questions, responds tolerantly to student comments)

Authoritative (Establishes clear course rules, maintains classroom order, speaks in a loud, strong voice)

Confident (Speaks clearly, makes eye contact, and answers questions assertively)

* ^ Creative and Interesting (Experiments with teaching methods; uses technological devices to support and enhance lectures; uses interesting, relevant, and personal examples; not a monotone presenter)

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Assignments and Activities

Reading Assignments, Activities, and Approaches to Promote Learning

A collection of resources on getting students to read what's assigned and strategies for developing college-level reading skills

Many students do not arrive in our courses with college-level reading skills. That usually ends up meaning a couple of things. First off, they don’t like to read and will challenge (usually quietly and covertly) teacher announcements and syllabus admonitions telling them they must do the reading. They’ll come to class, sit quietly, take a few notes, and see what happens if they aren’t prepared. If there are no negative consequences, they decide maybe they don’t have to do the reading or they can put it off until just before the exam. In the Relevant Research section below you’ll find a study that documents the number of students who come to class not having done the reading as well as what they say is the most effective tactic for encouraging them to read what’s assigned.

Getting students to read “boring” textbooks is especially challenging. To them, what’s in the reading is complicated, unfamiliar information that doesn’t seem all that relevant. What’s most important? What do they need to know? Why won’t the teacher just tell them what they need to know? After all, isn’t that the teacher’s job?

Without good reading skills, students often resort to dubious approaches when tackling their reading assignments. With brightly colored markers, they underline entire paragraphs, if not whole pages. They attempt the reading while attending to numerous distractions; TV, music, and electronic devices of various sorts. Their eyes glance across the words on the page, skipping over unfamiliar vocabulary and without stopping when they don’t understand something. The idea of interacting with the text—thinking about the contents, relating the content to what’s been talked about in class, trying more than once to understand a passage, keeping mental track of what they’ve just read in light of what they’re reading now—all of these close reading strategies necessary to understanding text material are not used at all or only modestly.

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online course design checklist
Worksheets and Checklists

Checklist for Online Discussion Design and Facilitation

1. Do you ask discussion questions that promote critical thinking?

2. Do you engage students in different types of discussion activities?

3. Do you clearly explain your expectations?

4. Do you provide exemplary and poor discussion post examples to students?

5. Do you handle desirable and undesirable discussion behaviors effectively?

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