Report: Last year’s paper/reading/discussion initiative

When last we left off…(and I might be the only one of the “we” left)…I was implementing a new structure for all of my courses.  Since then, I’ve done it each semester, in most courses, tweaking as I went.  Here’s my summary and review, and where I am now with it.

I call them “collaboration papers.”  A CP is one single-spaced page that begins with the reading assignment for that day, and ends with a question for discussion.  At the start of class, I flip through and choose a few questions for the day’s discussion.

Semester 1:  I provided students with a written description/guide to how to write these.  In a nutshell, it was:

1) Read the piece.
2) Read again and stop when you find something interesting.
3) Think about why you find it interesting.
4) Start writing and try to go somewhere else with it: What else can you think about from this starting point? What can you do with this insight or observation? Where can it go? In other words, what else in the world is related to this thing in which you are (now) interested? Explore these relationships.
5) At this point you will have an insight, a theme, a question or observation that is different from the one with which you began.  Use that insight to write a discussion question.

In the hope of minimizing their grade anxiety around these papers, I graded them only using broad ranges ranges: strong (B+), weak (C-) and failing (with the qualifier that consistent B+ papers would translate to an A at the end of the semester).

They did this for every class meeting.  It worked well for some students.  Most, however, struggled. They were worried about the grades, and the C- felt brutal to them.  They struggled to come up with a question that a) actually emerged from the thoughts they had been thinking, and b) was conceptually rich or theoretically versatile.  Too many of them wrote the questions they thought I wanted, or else moralizing questions like, upon reading about atheism, “Were atheists people who were neglected as children?”  Throughout the first semester of this experiment, I spent a good deal of time discussing the papers themselves and trying to provide tips, encouragement, and do’s and don’ts. (Don’t summarize the reading, don’t ask yes/no questions, do ask open-ended questions…) In any given class, there were some days when none of the papers made for juicy discussions.  In a couple of courses in particular, the papers were functioning as a way to police the reading, which was not at all what I wanted.  Also, it was absolutely impossible for me to keep up with the grading; 30 papers in each of 3 courses on nearly every class day was just too much.

Hmm.  The next semester, I made a couple of changes. 

Semester 2: I used them in only 2 courses and scheduled more time between readings. I changed my grade system to check-plus, check and check-minus, to lessen the emotional impact of the grades for them.

This worked a little better.  The grading schema was easier for students to handle this semester, anyway.  I had more experience helping explain the goal of the papers, so I was a bit better at it.  On my end, I kept up a wee bit better, but it was still woefully inadequate.  They weren’t getting them back quickly enough and I was overwhelmed. 

Still, also, I was getting a lot of chagrined or confused “Why are people so messed up?” kinds of questions.  And on days when no paper was due, they didn’t show up.  I had about six people in class on those days. Aaaargh.

Here’s what was working, though, and I was sticking with it despite the problems we were still facing:

1.  On the whole, they were reading!  They really, really were.  The papers were not easily fake-able, and they were so concerned about finding what I call their “nuggets” to write about, that they were doing the reading.  It was clear in all of my classes that far more people were coming prepared than ever before.  Since my pedagogy pretty much depends on their familiarity with the texts, I was not about to give this up.

2. Some students were making really nice moves in their papers.  I was convinced that because of this structure, they were spending more minutes of their lives actually thinking about what they were reading, and they were closer to what I consider critical thinking (more on that topic another time!) earlier and with more success.   Some of them were, in fact, coming up with great stuff.

3. It made the course theirs.  I had tried dozens of things to make the class more theirs than mine, and none had worked nearly so well.  Within the confines of the fact that most of my students don’t really want to be in college in the first place, this practically ensured that we were talking about things they wanted to be thinking about.

4. Once the papers got going, the students were engaged and enthusiastic.  In all but one course (7 of 8 so far), the papers were, from their perspective, a resounding success. End-of-semester evaluations, one after the other, contained some version of “The papers were a lot of work but I have never gotten so much out of a course before!”  So, you know… yay! 🙂

Last semester, though, one course was a complete disaster.  The whole thing completely blew up on me, and I didn’t figure anything out in time to stop it. 

Sometimes courses are disastrous.  It happens.  There are many possible reasons for that.  There were several reasons this time too, but one of them was the way these students responded to the papers.  They remained confused and frustrated throughout the semester.   They were utterly hung up on the implications for their grades, and I failed miserably at getting them past that, no matter what I tried.  In the end, we scrapped the papers altogether, in favor of a talking-point kind of approach.  The remaining class discussions were much better, but the majority of the students just stopped bothering when I stopped collecting their papers.

Okay, so 1/8 is pretty good, really.  But clearly, it needed more tweaking.  I made a couple more changes before this semester.  More to come at some point…

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