Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Few Things That Worked Today

Students in the morning class turned in atrocious essays today, which I was able to preview
via our version of BlackHoleBoard. I distributed questionnaires that forced them to reduce their arguments and findings into the outlines they should have done originally. Then I had the class define all the attributes that should be present in a successful assignment so that they now had a yardstick for evaluating their work.

Then I organized them into groups, had them read their outlines to one another, had them apply the criteria in the checklist, and told them that successful groups would be able to identify numerous ways of improving each outline.

Then the class reassembled and each group reported on the ways that each outline was improved. I told them that I would not grade the draft that was submitted today and gave them a week to revise their essays. Boy were they grateful.

Five years ago, I would have been pissed that they had screwed up their assignments.
Now I'm ecstatic that I came up with a process that allows them to spot their own errors
and correct them without hating my guts or prompting a call from their parents.

By the way, the essay was 500 words long and required them to compare two things and draw conclusions. I don't know how I could have made the assignment clearer or easier.

Which makes me wonder: What happens when these people graduate and get jobs? Does everything they do have to be redone?

Also, who do you tell if anyone when you discover a useful technique. Your significant other?
Your colleagues? No one?


  1. On a personal level, I'll talk about it with my colleagues, my S.O., and a few Facebook friends (all of which overlaps), some times to get their thoughts and other times just to crow a bit. On a professional level, I'd make sure to keep it as part of an end-semester set of teaching reflections, which go in to the tenure binder. If the approach is truly new, my field has a number of venues for peer-reviewed articles on pedagogy.

    By the way, I like what you described doing here. I've found a lot of success with peer critique, as well.

  2. I don't do stuff like this in chemistry lectures but I'm amazed when anybody can get students to move around and work in groups efficiently. How long of a class period do you have? My students waste five minutes just passing around an attendance sheet.

  3. I work in the professional sector, and I have some of these students as my staff. Yes their work has to be redone, sometimes two or three times. It will lead to th getting fired when they make a big enough screw up and they won't understand why.

  4. The entire K-12 curriculum in the US prepares students to start working, but not to actually finish anything correctly.

  5. What happens when they graduate and get jobs is that when they turn in shitty work they get fired. No group work. No relief at being given yet another chance when they can't complete a project with clear guidelines and a clear deadline.

    Pink slip. Exit. Adieu. Don't let the door hit you on your lazy ass on your way out.

    I tell everyone my useful techniques. Ironclad syllabus and due dates. Lots of availablity for personalized attention and help from the professor. But if you dick around and don't do your fucking work, and don't avail yourself of help, and don't pay attention to doing the assignment properly and handing it in when it's due, you fucking fail.

    Try harder next time, Pepito.

  6. I'm agnostic on the question of whether everyone *should* create an outline before they start writing (probably a good idea for longer projects, not so necessary for shorter ones, and never to be seen as a straitjacket in either case, since ideas inevitably evolve as one writes), but creating some sort of an outline or extract after one has written a full draft is definitely an extremely valuable aid to revision. It's a trick my father first taught me, and that I use to this day, usually by summarizing each paragraph in the margins, then trying to create an outline from that. But I've had mixed success guiding students through the process; I'd love to hear more about what was on those questionnaires.

    So I guess that's one answer: share your success, in detail, on CM. I share with friends in the same or related fields, too (most of my friends spend time walking students in general education classes through writing assignments, even though we're in different fields), and sometimes on facebook (where a lot of my "friends" are colleagues; I tend to stay in touch with my actual friends in other ways).

  7. Often they *don't* get fired, which is even worse. They make mistakes that have real consequences for others, and they just keep on screwing up and getting away with it.

  8. I tell everyone who wants to listen about anything I figure out that works, but I sure do find a lot of things that don't work. And this post made me salivate at the thought of getting a copy of this magical outline checklist.

  9. Here comes the REAL measure of success: Do these same kids replicate the process in some fashion on the NEXT piece in a way that renders the product immediately evaluable? Let us know.

  10. I also want to see this magical outline checklist! I gather the students generated it themselves (with direction)?


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