It’s week 15 of our 16 week semester and I’m beginning to reap the results of the energy that I put into revising my History 101: Western Civilization class taught in our increasingly threadbare Scale-Up classroom. The Scale-Up room organizes the class into 20, 9-student round tables, making it easier for collaborative work and discouraging straight lectures. For more on my adventures teaching in this class, go here.
At the start of the semester, I decided to make a few changes to the class including encouraging more individual writing, speeding up the pace in which I expected the students to immerse themselves in content, and providing quicker and more feedback on work.
The results have been pretty good.
1. Individual Writing First. In past semesters, I eased students into the expectations of the class with lots of little assignments completed by either 3-person pods or the entire table. This term, I required each student to work on 3 assignments of 500 words each at the beginning of the semester. Each of these assignments encouraged students to focus on (1) making an argument, (2) using evidence, and (3) different types of history (political/military, social/economic, cultural). The results of these papers were uneven, but they did introduce students to the expectations of the class and to various types of historical analysis.
Unfortunately, this introduction did not appear to carry through the entire semester. Students struggled to understand the different types of history (which admittedly overlapped) and found it difficult to identify and deploy evidence in support of an argument. On the one hand, these skills take time to develop and no amount of explanation can substitute for practice. On the other hand, students seem to regard each assignment as a stand alone project, unrelated to other assignments in the class. This problem is my fault. I need to emphasize the coherence of the class better and reinforce how each assignment, both individual and group, contributes to the learning goals in the class.
2. Faster Feedback. I was quite enamored with a system that would allow us to give students very rapid feedback on their writing assignments this semester. This involved having a couple of the teaching assistants evaluate papers during class and then, allowing them to present general trends in these papers to students on the same day that the students turned in the work. I figured this would be useful in a one-day-a-week class because it allowed students to do weekly assignments without having the “grading lag” between the papers.
I was hoping this would accelerate student learning and performance, but it didn’t really work very well. Students made the same mistakes in the second paper as they did in the first. I think the biggest issue was that general comments on student work do not translate very effectively to individual students. Since part of what my 100 level history class teaches is the skill of moving from general observations (and arguments) to specific examples (and evidence), it was perhaps a bit optimistic to think that students could easily take generalized comments and apply them to their specific work within the intervening step of individualized remarks on individual student papers.
3. Routine. The last nine weeks of the semester focus on each table writing its own chapter for an imagined Western Civilization textbook. Every three weeks, the class goes through three steps to produce a 3000 words chapter section: outline, rough draft (with peer review), final draft. This is a comforting and productive routine for most of us who write for a living, but for students, in a class, this routine is a system to be gamed. Clever groups immediately begin to figure out how much effort to put into the various parts of the writing project to ensure the maximum feedback for the least work. Undergirding this is the idea that assignments are not the successful completion of a task that is fundamentally independent of the classroom experience, but rather “what I want as the teacher.” In this scenario, the goal is to position the group to get as much information about the assignment from me (or my teaching assistants) as possible because I am the ultimate arbiter of success (rather than successfully completing a task independent of my assignment).
While I do everything that I can to discourage this behavior, it remains difficult to disabuse students of the notion that the goal in the class is not to get a good grade (i.e. make me happy), but to learn a skill. As long as the students imagine the class as a grade-getting game, they will look for ways to subvert the system and any routine will do less to reinforce good habits and more to offer an iterative game to overcome. The challenge, of course, becomes how to keep the assignments in the class changing to keep students engaged, encourage attention to good practices, and to undermine efforts to game the system, while reinforcing the idea that research and writing are practices best learned and refined through repetition.
This is the challenge for next fall!