Making my classes better for them *and* me

So, I’m revamping one of my fall classes — the only one about literature — to encourage more student engagement with the text and more participation. I have some assignments that already do that, but with some classes, discussion falls flat on the days something like that isn’t due, so I’m folding more of them into the regular rhythm of the class. I also want to get them talking and listening to each other more, but I want to make that worthwhile for them, so I’m trying to design ways to get them to offer better quality participation in the class. My goal with these assignments is also to teach students how to read in a more engaged way, more consistently throughout the semester, which, I hope, will help bring about all of the above goals

Anyway, I had already started doing this when Dr. Crazy wrote about revamping one of her courses and Sisyphus wrote about needing to change one of hers, so I thought I’d jump into the nascent conversation. (And actually, I egged Dr. Crazy on in comments to an earlier post and promised I’d write on the same topic.) I’ve actually kind of written about this particular course-revamping before, but the pedagogical stuff was embedded in a post about the specific subject matter, and I wanted to pull it out and highlight it — that way more of you who aren’t medievalists might see it and comment on it. Plus, it’s further along in the planning now.

My thinking about all of this actually started with thinking about final exams. Awhile ago, I read a post by Tenured Radical (which I couldn’t find now if I tried) about why final exams are a good thing. And more than once JJC has posted at In the Middle about the high-energy final review sessions he and his TAs run for his Myths of Britain course, where suddenly they see the contours of the class through the students’ eyes. All of this inspired me to add a final exam back into my literature classes. I had gotten rid of them in part because I had also unfairly maligned them, but also because I needed to make room for research projects, which I wrote about here. But for reasons that are too dull to go into, I thought for my fall literature class an exam would make sense again (the other class is a language class — it already has an exam), and would make more sense than a research project. So my revamping all started with thinking about that exam.

I find that the best exam essay writers are not always the best paper writers, but they are the students who have been dutifully paying attention all semester, taking notes, and, I assume, reviewing their work. They are also good at synthesis, a skill which, like analysis, needs to be taught. What’s more, I’ll admit that some of my past exams are guilty of asking questions that reflect the way I’ve been thinking about the texts all semester, but in ways that haven’t always come up in discussion or in what mini-lectures I do. So, I needed to think about how to teach students to synthesize and make connections, and how to avoid making the exam into a “how would Dr. Virago answer this?” game.  In addition, I wanted to continue to teach students the close reading, comparative, and other analytical skills that are important to how we think about literature when we study it. And, last but not least, I wanted to create assignments and other tasks that got them to do both synthesis and analysis on their own, actively and independently, before and after class, so they weren’t just sitting there waiting for me to fill them up with my knowledge.

There, now that I’ve sketched where I’m coming from, this is what I came up with. First of all, I set up the schedule of readings so that it does more lumping than splitting, so that it encourages making connections and comparisons. You can read about that more in the older post I wrote. But the rest of what I did is all about the assignments.  Here’s a quick summary list of what I’m assigning, all of which I’ll talk a little more about below:

  1. Crux-Busters, a short-form close reading assignment I’ve done before, but which I’m changing up a bit
  2. Discussion Questions — that is, ones *students* write and then answer together in class
  3. A participation grade that actually matters, the formula for which I reveal to students, and one which has its own set of guidelines
  4. A medium-sized (6-8 pages) paper which builds from the skills that 1 & 2 reinforce
  5. A final essay exam planned in part with the students’ considerable input and based largely on what comes out of the class from 2 & 3

I’ve written about #1 before (see link above — credit for the assignment name goes to Rob Barrett), but I’m changing it a little this year. Because I’ve got a lot of somewhat complicated and unconventional stuff going on in this class, I wanted to simplify the Crux-Buster rules, since students are always a little freaked out by the assignment at first. To review, a Crux-Buster is all about learning how to see the parts of a text that offer rich possibilities for analysis and discussion and doing a very close reading of them. Crux-Busters are mainly about the micro-level of analysis. In the past, it asked students to pick two short, non-contiguous passages from the day’s reading to analyze and write about for 1-2 pages. So previous Crux-Busters emphasized seeing patterns as well as doing local close reading. I’ve got the pattern issue covered elsewhere, so I took it out of the Crux-Buster assignment; this time, students will pick only one passage. And since they’re writing on less, the assignment got shorter, too — this time it’s 250-300 words. My assignment sheet for it is pretty darn long — all of my assignment sheets are (which I’ve talked about here) — but that’s because it teaches them how to do a Crux-Buster well. In the past, students have asked for a sample Buster because they were so anxious about the strangeness of the assignment, despite my many pages of single-spaced directions. Well, whatever, eventually I obliged them, once I had a good one (took awhile in that first class). But now, since I’ve changed it again, I just went ahead and wrote my own on a short text easily available for them to read (and Old English Riddle) so they could see what it was I was expecting. I hope having a model from the get-go will inspire good work and less anxiety sooner in this fall’s class. But mostly, I find, if they’re *trying*, I still get good discussion material from the students who’ve done a Buster that day (they have somewhat flexible due dates — usually either day of a given week.)

The second important assignment in terms of getting students to come to class having engaged more deeply with the text(s) and having something to say is the Discussion Question assignment. There, I ask students to come up with questions that they’d like the class to consider and answer, and I’ll use the best ones in shaping my lesson plans for the day. I’ve written a longish assignment handout for this task, too, including listing both what a good discussion question does and also, what it *doesn’t* do. (I’ve also banned “did you like/relate to ____” questions.) In the Crux-Buster assignment, I tell them all about close reading and what it’s about, why it’s important; so here, while I say they can do a question that asks the class for close reading, I’d also like them to pitch questions that emphasize “far reading” (seeing the whole) and comparative work (drawing on other works we’ve read in class).

In both of these assignments I lay out explicitly how they’ll be graded — that is, I tell them they’ll get the usual letter grades, but also I tell them what those letter grades signify in terms of the particular assignment. I’m trying to be much more transparent in telling students why I’m giving them a particular assignment — what I hope they’ll learn from it and why it’s suited to the course content — but also how they’re being assessed. On that note, I’ve also designed the course — especially these two assignments — to offer high challenge and low stakes. Crux-Buster and Discussion Questions are weird and not your conventional assignments, and I expect very high quality to earn an A grade — thus, high challenge. However, each Crux-Buster is a mere 5% of the total grade and each Discussion Question is 1%. What’s more, with the Discussion Questions, they can do up to 15 over the course of the semester, but I’ll only count the best 10 (and they need do only 10 — so students doing well out of the gate can take a break and others have the chance to catch up). And with the Crux Busters, I’ll drop the lowest scoring of their eight and double the highest.

Since students do Discussion Question on days they don’t do Crux Busters, that should solve one of the problems I’ve had in the past with Crux Busters only: that is, great discussion on days that a critical mass turned in a Buster, and lackluster discussion on days when few or no students turned one in. There will still probably be days when only a few students have done one or the other — especially since they are required to do only 10 Discussion Questions and 8 Busters over the course of 30 meetings.  But maybe that will be enough to jump-start the energy in the class.  (I should note that both of these assignments are due hours *before* class — electronically submitted — so that I can read them and use them to shape my plan for the day.)

I am also hopeful that the need to take some responsibility for when they do a Buster or a Discussion Question — since they both have variable due dates, especially Discussion Questions — will also spur students to take more responsibility for what level of engagement they bring to class. I hope, too, that my transparency about how much of the course’s success depends on them has that effect, too. That brings me to numbers 3 and 5 on the list above (I’ll set 4 aside for the moment). I am also transparent about my expectations and methods of assessment for participation in this class. Instead of just saying “participation matters” and writing a paragraph about it on the syllabus, I’ve given it its own assignment handout; after all, it gets a grade, so it should have directions and expectations just like other assignments. On that handout I define what makes for good participation and what’s merely distracting or even disruptive. I make room for thoughtful listening (note-taking is required — that’s how I’ll measure “thoughtful listening”) and set up opportunities for shy students to earn bonus points in office hours, but I do put the emphasis on contribution in class. (That said, my use of a person’s Discussion Question or Crux-Buster to inspire discussion counts as “contribution in class.”) And I penalize for disruptive behaviors, which include things like coming late or leaving early, phones ringing, etc. (I actually have a policy of “no electronic devices allowed” with the justification that they must give their full attention to the class — the material, me, and their classmates. I do, however, make an exception for documented needs of the disabled, of course.) And I lay it all out for them in a points system. If you show up to class every day and listen attentively, you’ll earn 2.5 points for each day. The highest grade possible for doing that every day is a C — a fair and just grade for someone who gains from the class but doesn’t contribute.  If, however, you contribute to class in a meaningful way, you’ll earn another point that day, for a total of 3.5. Someone who does that every day could earn an A+ — the only possible A+ in the class.

The idea that students must contribute to the class and well as take away from it (and that they will get more from it by giving more to it) is a recurring theme throughout my syllabus and assignments. More than once I use the computer programmer mantra “Garbage in, garbage out” to explain to students that what they get out of the class will only be as good as what they put in. And I emphasize that they are there to learn from each other as well as from me and the subject matter, and from doing as well as from receiving. My participation guidelines and note-taking requirement emphasizes listening to each other and not only me, and noting what we all have to say, even if it turns out to be misguided or wrong (since that sometimes leads to fruitful questions, discussion, or explanation). And all of that builds towards the final exam, number 5 on my list, which they will help create. I hope that after a semester of writing Discussion Questions and of attentively being present in class, they’ll be able to brainstorm questions for the exam. So, for the final week of classes, we’ll convene on the first day to list all the possible themes and topics that came up in class, that cross multiple texts, and that might generate questions and then they’ll go home and draft a few. Then, on the last day of class, we’ll meet to vet their drafts together, refining them and picking the best. The following day, a week before the exam, I’ll post the 10 best on the class Blackboard site. Only 5 of those will show up on the exam, and they’ll have to write on only 3, but they’ll at least then have a guide to prepare for the exam.

The final exam preparation also has its own handout. Basically, I’m trying to teach them how to be better students through many of these assignments. And I’ll emphasize to them again and again that they can take these skills to other classes, even if they’re not officially “required.”

I skipped over #4 on my list, the conventional medium-length paper. In and of itself, it’s probably not that interesting to talk about, but I wanted to mention that it’s an important piece of the over-arching plan here. Since we’re reading all of the texts in this class in translation, I ask students to find three translations of a given text and write a paper analyzing their difference in content and effect on them as a reader. Thus, I see this assignment as pulling in both the close- and far-reading skills of the Crux-Busters and Discussion Questions, and adding a little research-related problem solving and use of the library and its resources (they have to find the translations, and I’ve set explicit parameters about where they must come from, forcing them into the library). This is the same class for which I ordered The Saga of the Volsungs and had that problem with the e-text — which I’m going to bring up on the first day — so I’m hoping this assignment will make them sensitive to the importance of reading a good translation (and also the ways that translation is interpretation).

But also, this is the one assignment that the student works on by him- or herself for him- or herself, and I thought it was important to give at least one opportunity that wasn’t all about public presentation of one’s work and contributing to the class. That’s the other underlying impetus for reshaping my classes here — I wanted to divvy up the kinds of assignments to emphasize different skills and modes of writing, but also to to play to different kinds of student strength.

So that’s what I’m doing with one of my classes this year. I think I’m going to take the same principles, at least, to my other two literature classes in the Spring and revamp those, too. (And some of the principles — high challenge, low stakes; multiple opportunities to learn and different ways of learning — are at work in my language classes, too.)  But it remains to be seen how it goes this fall, and I’ll try to remember to keep you updated (remind me if I forget).

So what do you think? And what are you doing in your fall classes?

13 thoughts on “Making my classes better for them *and* me

  1. Hmm, this is inspiring and awesome! But it also feels very complex and like students have a lot to keep track of. That seems like a lot of assignment handouts, for example. And yet, this might be really interesting to try out in my survey. Is this for a survey? How many of these students are English majors, do you expect? I am not sure I can expect my survey students (all non-majors) to keep up with this level of complexity, and I definitely can’t expect them to turn in discussion questions before class on an online site (at best I’d get them 2 minutes before class started.)

    Since medieval stuff is also largely foreign to your students, do you do a set amount of lecture to give them some context and background? Or do you assign readings to cover that?

    It will be interesting to hear about your grading load throughout the semester, too, especially if you plan to give substantive comments, since you only get one “paper” but will constantly be flooded with little one-pagers.

    This was probably not a helpful comment at all. 🙂 Sorry! And BTW, could I see any of those handouts?

  2. Heh heh. Yeah, it is a little complex, but this is an upper division English majors’ course, and the potential due dates for everything is reiterated on the syllabus as well as in the assignment handouts. I think that once students get the hang of it, it won’t be hard to keep up with, especially since they’ll be able to see from the Blackboard site how many Discussion Questions they’ve done, for example. (And since Blackboard is being integrated into more and more classes, they all should have experience using it.)

    And yeah, I’ll still do a little bit of lecturing — I do mini-lectures, usually one a class — but one of my focuses in the class is teaching students that the literature can give context, too. That is, the more they read it, the more they’ll understand how to read it. I build that into my expectations for the Crux Busters and Discussion Questions.

    I’m not too worried about my grading load. I realized from my OE and ME language courses that frequent but short assignments are actually easier and faster to grade, keep me on top of my grading better, and make me hate grading less. In page number terms, this literature class will add up to no more than about 15 typed pages plus the final per student, and right now the enrollment is actually surprisingly low — I’ve had 30-35 students in this class, but at the moment I have only 17.

    As for commenting, I’m expecting one-three sentences for each short assignment — maybe a little more if there are writing problems and they show a pattern. I think the focused assignment also allows for focused feedback — much less overwhelmingly for both the student and the instructor.

    And yes, you can see my handouts. Drop me an e-mail and tell what e-mail address I should send it to.

  3. Oh, and it’s not really a survey — it’s a period-specific course (early medieval, aka Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic). Hence the fact that I can count on their experience with the literature growing over the semester.

  4. I didn’t think that what you describe sounds too confusing, fwiw, but I do think it might be… How do I put this? When I revamped courses for spring while I was on sabbatical, I had all this Energy! And Excitement! About how things could be Great! And I wasn’t wrong, exactly, but I did sort of forget what it’s actually like to be in the trenches of a full course-load of teaching, and a full service load, and trying to keep some research momentum going, too, and I forgot that my students all have 4 or 5 classes in addition to the one that they are taking from me. So perhaps a little bit of tweaking with the crux-busters and discussion-questions to make it clear that they have to have at least x done by y date (and so on) might be useful to you and to them, and maybe making the grading on discussion questions pass fail? Because while I didn’t find your description confusing, I did find it *intense* and *involved* – and intense and involved does equal time. Time which you’re used to having right now but that won’t exist when you’re not on sabbatical. The re-entry, Virago, it is hard.

    Now, of course, I could be totally wrong, and I might be projecting my own issues onto you here, so feel free to ignore 🙂

  5. Crazy, you are probably right. And mid-semester, when I’m having a nervous breakdown, I will write a post entitled “Dr. Crazy was right.” Hold me to it! 🙂

    That said, I think one thing that keeps this from being as onerous as it looks for both me and the students from the outside is the reading schedule. It’s pretty light. I think the longest reading assignment for any given day is 80 pages — and that’s 80 pages of straightforward “this happened and then this happened and then this happened” Old Norse saga prose translated into late 20th century English. And some days the reading is two short poems. And really, if they’ve done the reading, they can fire off a Discussion Question.

    Also, there is opportunity for slackage built in. Students have 18 opportunities for Discussion Questions (but only *have* to do at least 10, or at most 15, but only if they wish), all of them marked on the schedule of assignments. The first one is required in week 2, to get them started, and yes, I do tell them that they can’t put off the rest any later than X day. The Crux Busters have more limited due dates, usually a given week. So in Week 3, for example, it says “Crux Buster 1 due this week, either Tuesday or Thursday; 3rd opportunity for a Discussion Question on alternate day.”

    Also, I make clear that the Crux Busters are not formal, spend-all-night-writing kind of papers, but informal, say-something-smart-off-the-top-of-your-head papers about a short passage that struck you as worth talking about, and I will reiterate that something worth 5% of your grade in the end is not worth getting overly wound up about. After the first couple, they’ll learn to spin them out.

    Oh, and the grading is actually not going to be that bad. I’ve done the Crux Busters before — but actually, longer ones — and I rarely make marginal comments. Because it’s not a formal essay, I don’t have to talk about structure. And usually the comment is a sentence or two — it’s fast. I expect the Discussion Questions to be even faster, and those will be doled out in small piles.

    But, if you’re right, I will admit it later, I promise!

  6. Thanks for this post; I’m an occasional reader, but never commented before. You’ve given me lots of new ideas about how to increase engagement – I’m going to try incorporating discussion questions into my participation grade too! Hope your course works out well, it sounds fantastic!

  7. Oh, and Dr. Crazy, if you happen to see this: I think it also makes a difference that I’m teaching two courses in the fall, not four like you, and that I no longer have to be Graduate Director. But yeah, I’ll probably still be killing myself given the research/article deadlines I have in Nov, Dec, and Jan, so I’ll still probably write that “Dr. Crazy was right” post. 🙂

    (Oh, look, I *finally* got my name to display with caps and a space and punctuation! W00t!)

  8. This is really interesting stuff and very worth thinking about as I try to redesign my own fall course to promote more student engagement, with each other and with the texts. (I don’t teach literature, but the class in question is nevertheless supposed to be about textual analysis, and given how little training I have in teaching others to analyze texts, I’ve been struggling; it’s one thing to do it well yourself, and another thing to teach it to beginners!)

    I don’t want to overwhelm you with requests, but I too would be very interested in seeing your detailed assignment sheets. I’ve written my own along these lines, though not for class participation — which is a brilliant idea — but I’m not entirely satisfied with them.

  9. As another person who gleefully adopted and Adapted Rob Barrett’s “Crux-Busters” assignment, let me enthusiastically voice my support for them as developmental tools, especially in mid-level literature courses. My students actually report *liking* those assignments and finding them valuable and I have noticed a distinct improvement in their synthesizing argumentation in their more elaborate final projects.

    • Yes! Mine, too! Or they come to appreciate them eventually, anyway. At first, my students are little flummoxed by them, but as they start to understand them and do better on them, their other analytic writing improves, as well. I use them in at all levels of my classes — the MA students in the combined classes even have to do them — and find them a useful tool at all of those levels. I merely expect a little more sophistication in the kinds of passages chosen and the things said about them at the higher levels.

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